With Flip-Flop Frenzy Over, Anti-Gay Marriage Democrats Dig In

Bucking national polls on gay marriage, conservative Senate Democrats track home state opinion.

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Joshua Roberts / REUTERS

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) after a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington December 17, 2012.

After the sudden flip of several Senate Democrats from opposition to endorsement of gay marriage this week, the stampede may have come to an end, leaving a handful of holdouts in states where opinion still lags the national trend. Now that Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Mark Warner (Va.), and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) have switched, just nine Senate Democrats remain in opposition, a core group that includes some of the party’s most socially conservative members: Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Bill Nelson (Fl.), Tom Carper (Del.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.).

Showing no sign of concern about shifting national opinion in his culturally conservative state, Manchin told TIME through a spokesman: “I believe that a marriage is a union between one man and one woman.” “My beliefs are guided by my faith, and I support the Defense of Marriage Act,” he added. DOMA, passed in 1996, prohibits same-sex couples from receiving the federal benefits that married couples earn.

Pryor, Johnson, Heitkamp, and Landrieu had nothing to add to their existing opposition to same sex marriage. Pryor’s office told TIME that his position hasn’t changed, either. A spokesman for Johnson, who recently announced he will retire at the end of this year, said that Johnson believes the question is “up to the individual states.” (His own state of South Dakota banned not only same-sex marriage in 2006, but also civil unions and domestic partnerships.) He declined to discuss Johnson’s personal view on whether same sex marriage should be legal.

If there’s tension between Johnson’s public position and his private opinion, he’s not alone. Landrieu has straddled that line, telling BuzzFeed Saturday, “I feel very strongly that people should be allowed to love who they love, but unfortunately my state has a very strong ban against gay marriage constitutionally.” Not only that, but last month a Public Policy Polling survey found that just 29 percent of Louisianans back  gay marriage.

It’s similar story in other southern states. In Manchin’s home of West Virginia, a September 2011 poll found just 19 percent support for legalized gay marriage, with a whopping 71 percent opposed. Even among West Virginia Democrats, gay marriage was opposed by a 61-26 percent margin.

To be sure, a couple of these senators are slightly more equivocal. A spokesman for Donnelly tells TIME, “The Senator does not currently endorse gay marriage. He is continuing to review the issue.” Carper’s office told TIME on Monday that his views “have evolved and continue to evolve.” A switch of position could be easier for Carper, given that Delaware’s Democratic governor is a same-sex marriage supporter, than for Donnelly, whose home state of Indiana voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by more than 10 points in November and whose Attorney General has authored anti-gay marriage briefs for the cases now before the Supreme Court.

And some gay rights supporters are hopeful that two others–Pennsylvania’s Casey and Florida’s Nelson–might be shaken loose from their opposition to same sex marriage. Casey, a pro-life Catholic, did shift his position on gun control after the Newtown shooting last year, and is now under intense pressure from local gay rights activists. But when contacted by TIME, his office had nothing new to add on the topic.

A more promising potential convert could be Nelson of Florida. Although Sunshine State voters approved a statewide ban on gay marriage and civil unions four years ago, a PPP survey this month found 75 percent support for allowing at least civil unions in the state, and a September 2012 poll registered a slim majority in favor of legalized gay marriage.

On Monday spokesman Ryan Brown told TIME that Nelson “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.”

(As those Senators make up their minds, House Democrats—some of whose leaders have performed their own marriage flips of late—are charging ahead. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee  officially opposes DOMA and has criticized Speaker John Boehner for protecting the bill in federal courts. According to BuzzFeed, the DCCC had its “most successful online campaign ever” after it posted a photo to Facebook endorsing marriage equality received 10 million views.)

There are now 47 Senators who approve of gay marriage, including Republican Rob Portman and Hagan, who yesterday told the Raleigh News & Observer, “It’s time to move forward with this issue.” For now at least, nine of her colleagues disagree.