November 10, 2014 at 3:28 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Don’t blame election results on gay marriage
Richard Tisei, Brian Brown, Kay Hagan, Sam Brownback, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, Richard Tisei, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) show mixed results on the marriage issue in Election 2014. (Photos of Hagan and Brownback public domain; Washington Blade photos of Tisei and Brown by Michael Key)

Democrats are still reeling from the drubbing they took on Election Day, leading to questions about whether the rapid advancement of marriage equality was a factor in the Republican rout.

It depends on whom you ask and where you look, but viewing the election results on a national scale, it’s hard to make the case the issue had a significant impact when so many other factors were at play.

According to exit poll analysis, 49 percent of voters supported same-sex marriage, but 48 percent opposed it. Those numbers demonstrate smaller support for same-sex marriage than other recent polls showing nearly 60 percent support for gay nuptials among Americans, but it’s about the same as 2012 data, when marriage equality won big at the polls, and demonstrates more support than exit poll data in 2010.

Brian Brown, president of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, nonetheless crowed in a statement this week that support for restricting marriage to one man and one woman “overwhelmingly” won on election night.

“In red states and blue, candidates who supported marriage as the union of one man and one woman won election and those who didn’t were rejected by voters,” Brown said. “The Republican Party should take note that their nominees who favored gay ‘marriage’ were opposed by NOM and they were resoundingly defeated.”

The nominees to which Brown referred were U.S. Senate candidate in Oregon Monica Wehby, who campaigned in support of marriage equality in the general election, and gay Republicans Richard Tisei and Carl DeMaio, who both lost their bids for Congress. Prior to the results, anti-gay groups, including NOM, announced they were refusing to support these candidates and urged support for their Democratic opponents.

But each of the Democratic candidates in those elections were equally in support of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights — if not stronger — than their Republican opponents. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who won against Wehby, is an early supporter of marriage equality and champion of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate. Seth Moulton, the Democratic opponent who bested Tisei, supports LGBT rights, and DeMaio’s opponent incumbent Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) was endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign.

One might argue conservatives were so disaffected in those races that they stayed home and didn’t provide the necessary support to overcome the Republican rivals of Democratic candidates, especially in close races like California’s 52nd congressional district, where DeMaio was ahead in the final tally and declared the loser only after the provisional ballots were counted.

But that wouldn’t explain other races in which Republican challengers who support marriage equality were able to unseat Democratic opponents in close contests. Robert Dold, a former Republican House member who came out for marriage equality after leaving office, won in his bid to unseat Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), as did Carlos Curbelo, a Republican supporter of same-sex marriage who unseated Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.).

The support of marriage equality from these Republicans means the number of House Republicans will increase to at least six when the 114th Congress convenes. Dold and Curbelo will join incumbent Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and David Jolly (R-Fla.) in support of gay nuptials.

Kevin Franck, a gay Democratic activist in Massachusetts, said despite the “deeply conservative undercurrent” in Massachusetts politics, he saw no indications that Republicans in his state stayed home as opposed to voting for Tisei.

“Tisei received more votes that the anti-marriage equality Tea Party Republican who ran in the Sixth District in 2010, and redistricting has made the district more conservative since then,” Franck said. “The bottom line is this is a Democratic-leaning district and Richard Tisei’s path to victory was always paved with John Tierney’s perceived political weakness. After Seth Moulton won the primary, Tisei’s chances went downhill fast.”

In the U.S. Senate, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) came out for marriage equality after her primary and won her bid for re-election against her Democratic opponent Shenna Bellows.

It should be noted that Bellows was actually ahead of Collins in terms of LGBT issues. A former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Bellows supported a federal marriage equality bill and a comprehensive civil rights bill without a religious exemption. Although a majority of U.S. senators now support same-sex marriage, in the upcoming Congress that number will drop to at least 49.

But Collins’ re-election means at least four Republican U.S. senators will support marriage in the next Congress: Collins, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to the pro-LGBT American Unity Fund, took an approach to the election results that was the opposite of NOM, saying the issue of LGBT rights has “reached a turning point within the GOP.”

“Not only can Republicans follow their conscience and survive reelection, they can appeal to a much broader constituency and thrive with the support of the emerging LGBT-friendly majority within the GOP,” Cook-McCormac said.

Elections in which same-sex marriage may have played a role in defeating LGBT-supportive candidates were in conservative states Kansas and North Carolina, where Republican nominees who opposed gay nuptials won by a slim margin against candidates who support them.

Both Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who faced criticism from within his party for a tax policy that left his state in dire financial straits, and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), who faced a challenge from a strong independent candidate Greg Orman, were facing questionable re-election prospects.

But after the Supreme Court refused to review a decision in favor of marriage equality in the Tenth Circuit, opening the door for same-sex marriage in Kansas, both politicians reportedly drew on the ruling in their campaigns. According to the Associated Press, Brownback raised the issue in an interview without being asked about it, and Roberts sent a mailing criticizing Orman over his belief the state shouldn’t prohibit same-sex marriage.

In the end, both Republicans pulled off a win. Roberts ended up drubbing Orman by taking 53 percent of the vote compared to his 42 percent, and Brownback won with 50 percent of the vote against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis, who took 46 percent.

Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, discounted the media report that marriage was a factor in the Kansas races, saying he didn’t see any of the Roberts fliers and the issue “didn’t have any impact on the election whatsoever” in Brownback’s race.

“The reality is here from this election Paul Davis got stuck at 46 percent sometime back in July and never moved the needle,” Witt said. “That was long before any rulings on marriage.”

For the governor’s race, Witt said Brownback’s win was the result of Davis running a “one-note campaign” where the Democratic candidate would talk only about education and “that wasn’t enough to get him past 46 percent.”

In North Carolina, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who came out in support of marriage equality last year, was in a tight race against Republican candidate Thom Tillis. Throughout the race, Hagan was shown to have a narrow, but consistent lead in the polls.

But after the Supreme Court refused to review a decision bringing marriage equality, thereby enabling same-sex marriage in North Carolina, Tillis in his role as House speaker attempted to defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in court.

When the dust of the race cleared weeks later on Election Day, Tillis narrowly won by 49 percent, compared to 47 percent of the vote won by Hagan.

Thomas Mills, a political analyst and editor of PoliticsNC, nonetheless said he doesn’t think marriage played a major factor in the Senate race, and in fact Hagan’s support for gay nuptials was necessary to give her a boost in the progressive, research area of the state.

“I always assumed that the conservative base was coming,” Mills said. “They were angry at a lot more than just the marriage issue. They were mad at Obama, and then they got scared about Ebola. I don’t think it was much of a driver as some people may have thought it was.”

The idea that the advancement of same-sex marriage contributed to Republican wins in these races also doesn’t square with the results in Virginia. Although Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) was expected to win by a larger margin, he pulled off a narrow victory against Republican challenger Ed Gillespie by embracing the court decision that brought gay nuptials to the state.

And not supporting same-sex marriage was an unsuccessful strategy for Democrats. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who opposes gay nuptials, lost his re-election bid to Republican candidate Tom Cotton. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — who said she personally supports same-sex marriage, but also her state’s marriage ban — seems poised for defeat in her state’s run-off election on Dec. 6 and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is canceling at least some advertising reservations for her.

Being anti-gay also didn’t help Democrats in the House. The two House Democrats who co-sponsored a Federal Marriage Amendment banning same-sex marriage across the country won’t be returning to Congress next year. Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) is retiring and Rep. Nick Rahall (R-W.Va.) lost to Republican candidate Evan Jenkins by double-digits.

According to election data analysis from the Human Rights Campaign, LGBT issues “loomed small” in 2014 and the theme for the year was instead “throw the president’s buddies out” — even though some of those buddies happened to support marriage equality.

Taking note of exit polls showing LGBT people, who made up 4 percent of electorate, voted 3-1 for Democrats, HRC made the case that candidates, especially in purple states, can’t afford to lose support from these voters in close elections.

Kirk Fordham, executive director of the Denver-based Gill Action Fund, echoed the sense that marriage wasn’t a major factor for voters, saying even with the recent court rulings “we’re long past the days of 2004” when it could be used as a wedge.

“Even Republicans recognize that the shelf life of this issue has expired when it comes to benefiting their general elections,” Fordham said. “Certainly in some parts of the country, and in primaries, it’s still potent, but it just is an issue that Republicans avoid when it comes to appealing to the broader general electorate.”

CORRECTION: An initial version of this article miscounted the number of senators in the upcoming Congress who are expected to support same-sex marriage. The Blade regrets the error.

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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