Senator Mark Warner Endorses Gay Marriage. Who’s Next?

Senator Mark Warner announced his support for gay marriage. Eleven Democratic Senators remain opposed. Who's next? UPDATE: Answer—Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Hagan

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

President Barack Obama with Virginia Senator Mark Warner during a campaign rally in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 25, 2012

Virginia Democrat Mark Warner became the latest Democratic Senator to support gay marriage on Monday.

“I support marriage equality because it is the fair and right thing to do,” he says in an e-mailed statement to TIME. “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.”

“I was proud to be the first Virginia governor to extend antidiscrimination protections to LGBT state workers,” he continues. “In 2010, I supported an end to the military’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, and earlier this month I signed an amicus brief urging the repeal of [the Defense of Marriage Act]. I believe we should continue working to expand equal rights and opportunities for all Americans.”

Warner joins three other national politicians who have reversed themselves on the gay-marriage question this month. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, also changed their positions to support equal marriage opportunities for gays and lesbians. Over the weekend, in a Tumblr post, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, also reversed her former opposition to same-sex marriage.

Last week, a spokesman in Warner’s office told TIME that opposition to gay marriage was no longer the Senator’s position, but declined to elaborate. On Monday, TIME told Warner’s office that it was preparing a story on his public position on marriage. Hours later, Warner posted a statement announcing his reversal on Facebook and in an e-mailed statement to TIME.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments challenging Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, and on Wednesday, the court will hear a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that prohibits same-sex couples from receiving any of the federal benefits married couples receive. There are now just 11 Democratic Senators who have not publicly endorsed gay marriage.

Warner’s change of heart is unlikely to cause many political ripples in his home state. In September, junior Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said “legal equality should be the policy” and still beat a formidable opponent, former Republican Governor George Allen. In November, Warner’s state voted again for President Obama, proving Virginia has stretched from its conservative roots. On March 1, Warner announced he would join 39 Senators and 172 members of the House to sign the legal brief supporting the repeal of DOMA.

Warner is scheduled on April 6 to appear at the 10th Annual Commonwealth Dinner hosted by Equality Virginia, one of the largest advocacy organizations on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Virginians. Kevin Clay, Equality Virginia’s communications coordinator, said earlier on Monday, “We are recognizing the Senator for being the first governor of Virginia to issue an executive order that included sexual orientation. He will speak following the recognition — we have not seen prepared remarks.”

The 11 remaining Senate Democrats who have not endorsed gay marriage publicly are: Mark Pryor (Ark.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Bill Nelson (Fl.), Jon Tester (Mo.), Tom Carper (Del.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.). They can be broken down into three groups.

The first group was blunt in their opposition. The offices of Senators Manchin, Johnson and Pryor each responded to TIME in one or two sentences point-blank that they still don’t endorse gay marriage. Each of these Senators represents a conservative state, and West Virginia, South Dakota and Arkansas all went heavily for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

TIME hit a wall speaking to the second group — Senators Landrieu, Tester and Donnelly — none of whom responded for comment. Louisiana, Montana and Indiana also went red in the past presidential election. Of the second group, Senator Donnelly might be able to look to his Midwestern neighbor for cover. Donnelly has endorsed benefits for gay partners in the past and said, “I stand with Rob on much of this” after Portman endorsed gay marriage after his son told him he was gay.

The rest — Senators Casey, Nelson, Carper, Heitkamp and Hagan — still do not endorse gay marriage, but are making clear signals that they are more moderate than some. Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown said he “strongly supports civil rights for same-sex couples, while believing marriage should be between a man and a woman.” He added that the decision might be out of the Senator’s hands, as “the issue will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court before the end of the year.”

Casey spokeswoman April Mellody said her boss, who defeated conservative Republican Rick Santorum in 2006 and won re-election last year, “has supported civil unions, and he is closely following the debate around DOMA.” If a bill comes before the Senate, she said he’ll “thoroughly review” it. In 2010, Pennsylvania Republicans picked up the governorship, a Senate seat and five House seats.

Heitkamp communications director Whitney Phillips said the Senator “believes this should be handled on a state-by-state basis.” Last year Romney won conservative North Dakota by over 58% of the popular vote.

Hagan spokesman Chris Moyer said his boss does not endorse gay marriage, but noted that she fought against previous state actions that would have defined marriage as only between one man and one woman. The Senator must be wary in a state that turned from Obama in 2012, and gave Republicans the governorship and three House seats.

Carper’s office pointed out that he signed the DOMA supporting brief, and a Carper spokesperson said his “views on this issue have evolved and continue to evolve.” The Senator wouldn’t lose much support in such a heavily Democratic state and is the Senate Democrat most likely to endorse besides Warner.

As we know from history, a denial of a position change one day does not prescribe what will happen on the next.

On Friday, McCaskill’s spokesman John LaBombard told TIME, “Fundamentally, she opposes discrimination — and she recognizes that views on the issue, including her own, have evolved quite a bit over the past several years.” Two days later, McCaskill announced her endorsement, over a photo of a frittata she had baked on Saturday. “My views on this subject have changed over time, but as many of my gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and staff embrace long-term committed relationships, I find myself unable to look them in the eye without honestly confronting this uncomfortable inequality,” she said. “Supporting marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is simply the right thing to do for our country, a country founded on the principals of liberty and equality.”

For politicians, views on gay marriage don’t evolve; they jump. We’ll see who moves next.

Update: On March 26, Sen. Jon Tester announced his support for gay marriage on Facebook:

Montanans believe in the right to make a good life for their families. How they define a family should be their business and their business alone. I’m proud to support marriage equality because no one should be able to tell a Montanan or any American who they can love and who they can marry.

Update Two: On March 27, Sen. Kay Hagan announced her support for gay marriage in the Raleigh News & Observer:

We all want the same thing for our families. We want happiness, we want health, prosperity, a bright future for our children and grandchildren. After conversations I’ve had with family members, with people I go to church with and with North Carolinians from all walks of life, I’ve come to my own personal conclusion that we should not tell people who they can love, or who they can marry. It’s time to move forward with this issue.

Correction: The post has been changed to reflect that Senator Heitkamp’s statement to TIME did not explicitly oppose gay marriage.