October 22, 2014 at 4:09 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Marriage rulings playing out differently in Senate races
Mark Warner, United States Senate, Democratic Party, Virginia, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has made the case for same-sex marriage in his re-election campaign. (Washington Blade file photo by Lee Whitman)

With support for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage on the rise, much has been said about the way in which Democrats have turned the issue to their advantage against Republican opponents in the mid-term elections.

But given the projected losses for Democrats on Nov. 4, campaigning on these issues apparently isn’t enough to save incumbent candidates in close races. On Wednesday, the Senate forecast tool on The Huffington Post website gave a 66 percent chance of Republicans picking up the six seats needed to win control of the Senate.

In the case of the U.S. Senate race in Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to refuse to hear an appellate decision against Virginia’s marriage ban — which effectively legalized marriage equality in the state — appears to have played to the advantage of incumbent Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Upon the news that the Supreme Court wouldn’t hear the case, Warner, who had previously touted the economic benefits of same-sex marriage during an appearance at Northern Virginia Pride, issued a statement praising the decision.

“Allowing people to marry who they love is the fundamentally right thing to do, and it strengthens our families and communities,” Warner said. “This is a remarkable and memorable day in Virginia’s march toward equality.”

Two days later in a debate, Warner’s opponent Ed Gillespie, was put on the defensive, saying he accepts the court’s decision even though he continues to oppose gay nuptials. As former chair of the Republican National Committee, Gillespie pushed for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage throughout the country.

“The court has ruled on this,” Gillespie reportedly said. “It is the law in Virginia today, and as I do not believe that a federal law is the proper approach, then of course I accept the decision by the Supreme Court not to take up this decision of the circuit court.”

This race is one of the few in which an incumbent Democrat is sitting pretty ahead of Election Day. According to a University of Mary Washington poll published earlier this month, Warner is leading Gillespie by 10 points among likely Virginia voters.

In Colorado, incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) isn’t faring as well, even though the Colorado Democrat praised the arrival of marriage equality in his state and has a strong record on LGBT rights.

When the Supreme Court refused to review court decisions in favor of same-sex marriage in Utah and Oklahoma — effectively bringing marriage equality to Colorado — Udall issued a statement commending the decision as a win for the state.

“We are a stronger, better state when all couples are able to publically affirm their shared commitment and responsibilities to one another through marriage,” Udall said. “The U.S. Supreme Court’s move to let the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in favor of marriage equality stand is a win for all Coloradans.”

Meanwhile, his opponent, U.S. Senate candidate and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), said in a statement to FOX31 Denver the issue belongs to the courts “and we must honor their legal decisions,” but sought to avoid social issues in his campaign.

“While others might seek to divide Coloradans, I will not do that,” Gardner was quoted as saying. “Coloradans are tired of politicians who spend all their time on partisan hot-button issues that divide our state. We need leaders who are focused on bringing people together on the economic issues that we all agree on. Our nation is in real economic trouble and that’s what my campaign is all about.”

In that state, the divergence between the Democratic and Republican candidates on the marriage issue doesn’t seem to be playing as favorably to the Democratic candidate. A Public Policy Polling poll published Tuesday gave Gardner a 46-43 lead in his bid to unseat Udall.

Despite this divergence, the nation’s largest LGBT group insists that campaigning in favor of LGBT rights is the way to go for candidates to win elections.

Stephen Peters, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said candidates should voice support for LGBT rights just as LGBT people should back candidates who support LGBT rights in the upcoming election.

“Every election has consequences – at the local, state or national level – and that’s why it’s incumbent on LGBT people and our allies to vote for candidates that support equality,” Peters said. “As a measure of our progress, in virtually every election across the country, supporting LGBT equality is a sure-fire winner. That’s a remarkable change from just a few years ago. We need to keep building that momentum so that one day very soon, there’s uniform certainty that all candidates – Republicans and Democrats – support LGBT people, marriage and other equality issues.”

In North Carolina, the situation is somewhat reversed as the Republican candidate is taking a more active approach over the court decision in favor of marriage equality, although the Democrat continues to speak out.

Just before a court ruled for marriage equality in North Carolina, U.S. Senate candidate and House Speaker Thom Tillis sought to defend along with Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger the state ban on same-sex marriage in court.

When they were denied the ability to intervene and U.S. District Judge Max Coburn struck down the law, Tillis and Berger sought to appeal to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, despite existing precedent in that circuit in favor of marriage equality.

“I feel it is my responsibility, after 60 percent of the people voted that into law, to defend the laws of the state,” Tillis said at a debate last week, denouncing “liberal activist judges” and vowing to go back to the Supreme Court.

Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, who came out for same-sex marriage last year, issued no statements regarding the decision on either her U.S. Senate or campaign website, although she did reiterate her support for same-sex marriage in a recent debate and criticized Tillis for spending taxpayer dollars to defend the ban.

Although Tillis has claimed momentum in the race, the situation has thus far not detracted from Hagan’s lead in the polls. A SurveyUSA poll of likely North Carolina voters published on Tuesday found that Hagan remains in the lead with 46 percent support, compared to 43 percent support for Tillis.

In Kansas, where the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision against marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma has created precedent to rule against the state’s marriage ban, the Republican incumbent is also eager to defend the law ahead of the mid-term election.

According to the Associated Press, the campaign of Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) sent a mailing last week to 300,000 voters, criticizing independent candidate Greg Orman, who has said government shouldn’t prohibit same-sex marriage. Orman has been endorsed by the LGBT group Equality Kansas.

This closely watched race has unexpectedly become among the closest in the country. A Monmouth University poll published on Monday found the race is in a dead heat. Roberts enjoys support from 46 percent of voters, while Orman is supported by another 46 percent.

That’s along the lines of what Gov. Sam Brownback, who’s trying to retain his seat from a Democratic challenger after an unpopular first term in office that left the state defunded, has said about same-sex marriage. Looking to bring aboard alienated Republican voters, Brownback reportedly raised the issue during an AP interview last week and spoke at a rally against same-sex marriage.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said candidates should want to endorse same-sex marriage to be on the right side of history, but the local politics in these races will determine which position they advocate.

“Midterm elections are partly national, partly local,” Sabato said. “In most cases, the partisan composition of the state or district will determine the stance taken by each candidate, and the aggressiveness with which each candidate pushes his or her position.”

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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