Kay Hagan is the latest in a long line of Democratic senators to come out for gay marriage. It is very strange how all these previously non-committal Democrats have all changed their minds in the buildup to the Supreme Court case concerning Proposition 8, but that is another matter. We are concerned only with the political effects of such an announcement. What are they?
In a word: none. Gay marriage is a non-issue. It was not that way less than a year ago, when North Carolina passed Amendment 1 by a landslide and President Obama evoked controversy by coming out for same-sex weddings.
In the textbooks of the future, 2012 will be looked upon as the year that was the death knell for gay marriage opponents, North Carolina’s amendment notwithstanding. President Obama got the momentum going; polling data suggests that his stance strongly influenced African Americans on the subject, with many in this group accepting the president’s reasoning and switching their views accordingly. But the pivotal day was election day – not only did several states legalize gay marriage through initiatives, but President Obama defeated Mitt Romney by a resounding margin. To many Republicans, Romney had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by running too far to the right and allowing Obama to grab anxious moderates.
Romney’s defeat led to a belief in the GOP that Something Had to Change. The party had an image problem – bigoted, intolerant, homophobic. “Forced deportation” was a phrase that had to go. So, too, did opposition to gay marriage.
Back in 2004, gay marriage was an issue that strongly favored Republicans, and anti-gay marriage initiatives helped President George W. Bush won a second term. Now, gay marriage is an issue that favors Democrats, the ‘median voter’ probably wants gay marriage and wonders why Republicans don’t like it, or why we’re even talking about it at all.
Gay marriage is also a major issue to young voters (for many, it’s the only issue). Many young Republicans favor gay marriage. With the GOP being branded as ‘bigoted’ the party is losing its chance to reach out to young voters who may share their views.
Now for Kay Hagan. It’s true that the median North Carolina voter probably doesn’t favor gay marriage. But many of those in opposition no longer have intense feelings about it. To some extent, even those voters know that gay marriage is inevitable, might as well sit back and enjoy it. In other words: nobody is going to vote against Kay Hagan because of her view on gay marriage, except those who would never vote for her anyway.
Hagan’s stance on the marriage issue is pivotal for one group – progressive activists. Same-sex marriage has become a litmus test in the Democratic Party. In 2016, anyone who hopes to be the Democratic nominee for President is going to have to be for gay marriage. Anyone opposed to the institution might as well be for segregated schools, as well. To many liberals, being anti-gay marriage is not just a right-wing stance – it’s evil. Hagan’s stance will do one thing: it will prevent consternation among Democratic activists and other liberals. They’re more likely to vote for her now.
Can the Republican nominee use Hagan’s position to his advantage? No, he cannot. While North Carolinians oppose gay marriage right now, the numbers are changing quickly. Who knows what they will be like a year from now? Next, talking about gay marriage will severely alienate moderates in the Research Triangle and Charlotte area. Those are going to be the ones deciding this race. They’re mostly upscale, highly educated, and more secular-minded than the average North Carolinian. Hagan’s ‘flip-flop’ won’t earn her their votes. But a Republican who vocally opposes gay marriage will probably lose them.
Gay marriage is about to become a non-issue. The more Republicans try to make it an issue, the more painful it will be for them going forward.