March 18, 2014 at 12:06 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
How bad would a GOP Senate takeover be for LGBT people?
Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, Republican Party, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, CPAC, Conservative Political Action Conference, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would likely become majority leader if Republicans win a majority in the Senate.  (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The congressional mid-term elections are more than six months away, but political observers are already warning Democrats they could lose control of the U.S. Senate — an outcome that has tongues wagging over its potential impact on LGBT issues.

While analysts agree that Republicans could claim at least six seats to win control of the chamber — such as by knocking off pro-LGBT senators in New Hampshire and Colorado — the general sense is draconian anti-gay measures like the Federal Marriage Amendment won’t emerge even with GOP control of the Senate.

Dan Pinello, a political scientist at City University of New York, noted seven incumbent Democrats are seeking re-election in states Mitt Romney won in 2012 and conservatives like the Koch brothers and Karl Rove are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars through “Super PACs” to affect those races.

“So I think the prospect of a Republican takeover is very close — a virtual tossup right now,” Pinello said. “Everything will depend on the degree to which Democratic voters turn out at the polls in crucial states.”

Republicans are optimistic about their prospects on Election Day 2014 — and virtually no one is suggesting that Democrats can retake control of the House. In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” anti-gay GOP strategist Karl Rove predicted GOP victory in the Senate.

“With 14 seats in play on the Democratic side and a couple of seats in play potentially on the Republican side, I think it’s highly likely that Republicans pick up the majority,” Rove said.

On the same day on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer defied the predictions by saying he believes “we will keep the Senate.” But his former colleague in the White House, Robert Gibbs — who landed in hot water in 2010 by saying Republicans could take control of the House — expressed a contrary view, saying the Senate is “definitely” in danger in 2014.

“So as a consultant, I can say all these things now,” Gibbs said. “They’ve got to pick up six seats, which is not a small number. But what gives them a huge advantage, obviously, is the states that they’re in…Louisiana and in North Carolina, in Montana, places that the president didn’t do well.”

The heads of both political parties are both bullish about their prospects in 2014. On Tuesday, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus predicted at a National Press Club breakfast a “tsunami” and said it’s “going to be a very big win, especially at the U.S. Senate level.” Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said that Democrats are running “aggressive bottom-up campaigns” and she’s confident her party will hold the Senate.

But political analysts have forecasts more favorable to Republicans. As of Monday, Cook Political Report forecast that Republicans will pick up somewhere between four and six seats, but expected the ultimate gains will be “at the higher end of – and may exceed – that range.”

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said it’s too early to provide a firm prediction on the extent of Republican gains, but said Republicans would net at least four to six seats.

“It’s easy to see how they could get six or even more if President Obama stays in the low 40s and the economy continues to be balky,” Sabato said. “This year, in the sixth-year of President Obama’s administration, you’d much rather be in the GOP’s electoral position than the Democrats’.”

Pro-LGBT Democrats face challenging re-election bids

Democrats elected to the Senate at the start of the Obama administration and who built a reputation for  supporting LGBT rights are among those facing uphill re-election bids.

Among them is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) who has championed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the flow of spousal benefits to veterans in same-sex marriages as chief sponsor of the Charlie Morgan Act. A potential challenger for her is former U.S. senator from Massachusetts Scott Brown. Although he voted for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal during his tenure in the Senate, Brown penned an op-ed for Bay Windows suggesting the pursuit of LGBT rights was a “pet project.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) also faces a tough re-election bid now that Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has announced he will run for the Senate. Udall has championed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, an end to the Defense of Marriage Act and has written at least two letters to the Obama administration to ensure gay veterans can receive spousal benefits in whichever state they live. Gardner hasn’t articulated a position on same-sex marriage, but voted in favor of an LGBT-inclusive version of the Violence Against Women Act.

The Democrat who’ll likely face the most challenging re-election campaign is Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). An early supporter of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, she voted for a repeal amendment in the Senate Armed Services Committee even before the Pentagon report on open service. Hagan came out in favor of same-sex marriage last year on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on California’s Proposition 8. She could face any one of a number of Republicans vying for the nomination in the state’s primary.

Also of note is the re-election bid of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who as chief sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act oversaw a bipartisan vote in favor of the bill in the Senate late last year. Merkley has also been the leading voice in the Senate calling on President Obama to sign an executive order barring LGBT employment discrimination among federal contractors. A number of Republican candidates have lined up to challenge Merkley, although he’s expected to win re-election in the heavily “blue” state.

The only Republican who’s expected to face a tough re-election challenge is the one who’s likely to handle the floor schedule in the Senate if the GOP ekes out a win: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). In addition to facing a Tea Party challenge, McConnell faces a stiff challenge in the general election from Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Would anti-LGBT legislation move forward?

If the Republicans win control of the Senate, it would create a Congress in which the GOP leads both chambers at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to deliver a nationwide ruling on marriage equality.

Speaking to the Washington Blade after her event at the National Press Club, Wasserman Schultz initially responded to an inquiry about what a GOP takeover of the Senate would mean for LGBT people by saying, “Oh, God.”

Wasserman Schultz predicted Republicans would curtail the expansion of rights she said are “deserved” by LGBT people in addition to engaging in an “aggressive attempt” to roll them back. But the DNC chair emphasized that won’t happen because Democrats are on track to maintain control of the Senate.

Asked by the Blade whether she thinks Republicans would want to push through a Federal Marriage Amendment, Wasserman Schultz said that “wouldn’t surprise me” because the Republicans endorsed the amendment as part of the 2012 party platform.

But political observers say even with Republicans in control of both chambers, the trend in favor of same-sex marriage — which a recent poll pegged at 59 percent support — would deter Congress from passing a measure that already failed twice under the Bush administration when Republicans had large majorities.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said he doesn’t foresee a situation in which Republicans would push forward in either chamber with a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“Considering the move for a Federal Marriage Amendment in the House following the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision last year went absolutely nowhere tells me that there is little appetite among Republicans to engage in culture wars either in the House or the Senate — in this election cycle and in 2016,” Angelo said.

But there are other pieces of anti-gay legislation that could be seen as an alternative to the Federal Marriage Amendment. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have introduced legislation known as the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which would prohibit the federal government from discriminating against organizations that exercise “religious conscience” against same-sex marriage.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Texas) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have introduced the State Marriage Defense Act, which would prohibit the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage in states where it’s not allowed. The bill may be moot in the event of a Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality.

Sabato nonetheless said he doesn’t see much of an opportunity for anti-LGBT legislation of any kind to make it through the Senate – given the growing support for LGBT rights among Republican senators.

“I think it is very unlikely Susan Collins or Rob Portman would support any stand-alone, anti-LGBT legislation,” Sabato said. “I could see other Republicans joining them, such as Lisa Murkowski. I can’t see a single Senate Democrat voting for such legislation. So I doubt the Senate would pass it.”

In the event that an anti-gay bill was approved by both chambers of Congress, Sabato said the legislation would never become law because President Obama would veto it once it reached his desk.

But Republican control over the Senate could mean an end to progress on pro-LGBT legislation. Under Democratic control, the Senate just barely invoked cloture on ENDA by a vote of 61-30 before approving it on final passage. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House has yet to take up ENDA months after the Senate voted to approve it as House Speaker John Boehner threw cold water on it during a meeting with the LGBT Equality Caucus.

Pinello said the danger for the LGBT community in the aftermath of a Republican takeover of the Senate lies in the nomination and confirmation of federal judges — perhaps on the Supreme Court in the event of a vacancy before the final ruling on marriage equality.

“The federal bench is now the most hopeful source of remedy for the denial of marriage equality nationwide, and a Senate controlled by the Republican Party might diminish those prospects,” Pinello said. “Thus, there is very good reason for LGBT voters to turn out for Democratic candidates next November.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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