Number of Democratic Holdouts Against Gay Marriage Is Dwindling Fast

The Democrats’ potential 2016 contenders may be shifting at breathtaking speed—Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Brian Schweitzer this week alone—but David Freedlander found a few last opponents.

03.27.13 8:45 AM ET

How quickly is support for same-sex marriage moving?

Well, consider this. On Monday, I pitched a story to my editors on Democrats who are considered to be potential presidential candidates in 2016 but who still don’t support same-sex marriage.

The story was meant to be proof against the conventional wisdom that says that never again will a party leader be on the other side of the marriage-equality question, that even though Joe Biden and Barack Obama and even Rob Portman were reversing their previous positions, a number of party leaders and chattered-about presidential contenders aren’t where the growing gay-rights constituency wants them to be. Many of the pols who didn’t support same-sex marriage weren’t explicitly opposed so much as they were straddling the fence, talking about equal rights under the law but declining to say they support marriage. By my count, there were perhaps a half dozen of them, a fairly large number considering the relative shortness of the list of politicos mentioned as 2016 candidates. Perhaps I could flush some of them out, find out if they, like Obama, were “evolving on the issue.”

No sooner had I returned to my desk, however, than Mark Warner, who was rumored to be running for president in 2008, changed his position, writing on his Facebook page: “I support marriage equality because it is the fair and right thing to do. Like many Virginians and Americans, my views on gay marriage have evolved, and this is the inevitable extension of my efforts to promote equality and opportunity for everyone.”

No worries. Plenty more on the list. I reached out to the office of Warner’s Virginian counterpart, Sen. Tim Kaine, who also is mentioned often as future presidential material. In 2012, while running in a tight race for his Senate seat, Kaine straddled the line, telling reporters: “I believe in the legal equality of relationships. The debate about, you know, is it marriage? Is it civil union? Is it domestic partnership? I just kind of let that one go and say should committed couples be treated the same by law, and I think the answer is yes.” I reached out to LGBT advocates in Virginia, one of whom told me in no uncertain terms that they hoped Kaine would join their side, and soon. But when I called the senator’s office, an aide sent me an article from that morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, in which Kaine reversed his position too, telling the newspaper, “My thinking has evolved on it because of people I know, so many gay and lesbian folks, some in longtime relationships who are great parents.”

OK. Next up, Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana. The colorful, bolo-tie-wearing politico had floated himself for president, telling CNN that “I have a warm regard for the people of Iowa and New Hampshire,” And it had been hard to parse his opinion on marriage. In a 2008 biography, he was quoted as saying: “Montana is a libertarian place, keep the government off our back, out of our bedroom. We don’t want to hear from you unless we need you,” and advocating for “the legal means for adults to live their lives together—civil unions, something like that.” Montana has a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, so Schweitzer would have need to overturn it before pushing for an equality law, and before leaving office last year, he gave an interview and said that if the legislature passed a bill that said the government has no place “telling you who to love, I agree with all of that.” Advocates and politicos in the Big Sky state said Schweitzer had carefully guarded his views, and even close watchers of statehouse politics in Helena said they weren’t sure where he stood. I eventually tracked Schweitzer down at his lakefront home, and after describing the majestic Montana mountains outside his window, he said: “I believe that two people who love each other ought to be legally married ... given the opportunity to support people of the same gender getting married, I do.”

So how quickly is support for same-sex marriage changing? Faster than I can type. Still, a few who harbor dreams of coming to a primary ballot near you remain opposed to same-sex marriage. But seeing how this week has gone—with three other Democratic senators beyond the aforementioned announcing their support—check back here for updates.

Jay Nixon
In his first press conference after winning a second term as Missouri governor, Jay Nixon pointedly declined to say if he had run his last campaign, even though the state constitution prohibits him from running again for his current post. But if Nixon does seek national office, he will have a hard time convincing the Democrats’ sizable LGBT constituency that he has their interests in mind. He told one questioner when he first ran in 2008 that “I was raised to believe that marriage is between one man and one woman,” and he reiterated those views when he ran again in 2012. Advocates in Missouri seem beyond pushing the governor on the matter and are not even pursuing civil-union legislation. “In Missouri we still don’t have basic employment rights, so that is my No. 1 goal,” said Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, a local gay-rights group. “We still have concerns about marriage equality, but our No. 1 goal is around protecting people’s homes, protecting people’s jobs, protecting people where they go and receive services.” A spokesman for Nixon did not return a request for comment.

John Hickenlooper
Colorado recently passed a civil-union bill that Hickenlooper, who has been a widely speculated 2016 candidate, championed. Gay marriage there is a harder question, as a constitutional amendment banning it passed by referendum in 2006. The civil-union bill provided all of the rights of marriage, and in an email, Eric Brown, a Hickenlooper spokesman, said that “the governor has long said government shouldn’t regulate or tell a church what it can do or can’t do. [B]ut all people do deserve the same basic legal rights—hence, civil unions in CO.”  When asked if Hickenlooper thinks the law should be changed, Brown said that due to the ban, same-sex marriage was “not a pending issue in Colorado nor do I expect it to be any time soon,” and he said the governor was unavailable to comment on his personal opinion on same-sex marriage. The two-term governor is often described as a champion of gay rights, but LGBT advocates were quick to note that the civil-union law fell short of marriage. Advocates there also say they are waiting on the Supreme Court ruling before deciding how to proceed on overturning the referendum. Hickenlooper has denied interest in running for president, but admirers of the former brewmeister have been keeping his name in the mix.

Janet Napolitano
Twice in the past year, reporters have cornered the secretary of homeland security to ask if she favors same-sex marriage, and she has brushed the questions aside, telling one, “You know what, I don’t think my personal views are relevant.” The non-answer comes even as other members of the Obama Cabinet have come out in favor of same-sex marriage rights. When Napolitano was governor of Arizona, she opposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage but also said at the time that she thinks marriage should be between a man and a woman. Napolitano, who has never married, has long been the subject of a whisper campaign about her own sexuality and has been criticized by some gay advocates for not doing more to protect bi-national gay couples from deportation. Earlier this month, she refused to rule out running for president in 2016. The DHS press office did not initially return a request for comment, but after this story posted, a spokesman for Napolitano said that as a member of Obama’s national security team, she is forbidden from engaging in politics.