In 2004, many pundits credited the advent of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts (and 13 ballot initiatives banning marriage equality) with prompting conservative Christian voters to turn out in droves and help re-elect President George W. Bush. That same year, and again in 2006, Republicans in Congress were so rattled by the looming threat of marriage equality that they overwhelmingly voted to amend the Constitution to forbid same-sex unions. (The amendments failed.)
Yet eight years later, in a testament to the rapid advance of LGBT rights, just a tiny fraction of this year’s GOP Senate candidates are explicitly calling for a constitutional amendment. In fact, there are nearly as many Republican contenders touting their opposition to federal action as there are ones calling for it.
A ThinkProgress examination found that of all 83 current Republican Senate candidates, just six mention their support for a federal marriage amendment to ban marriage equality. The six include three current senators — John Cornyn (R-TX), Jim Risch (R-ID), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) — as well as Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT) and two GOPers running in Oklahoma, Randy Brogdon and Andy Craig.
Many senators who voted in favor of the 2006 Federal Marriage Amendment now don’t mention the matter, even as they discuss same-sex marriage in general.
Take Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Before voting for the 2004 FMA, Sessions announced on the Senate floor, “It is time for us as a people to utilize the power of the Constitution given us through our elected representatives to amend the Constitution.” In 2006, then-Senate Minority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-KY) argued, “The constitutional amendment process, being the closest process we have to a national referendum, is the best way for the people to speak on this important issue.” Neither senator calls for a constitutional amendment on their re-election websites now; Sessions simply says that “He has worked hard to strengthen families by protecting the institution of marriage.”
This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that Sessions or McConnell don’t still support a constitutional amendment. They likely do, and would almost certainly vote for it again if it came up in 2015. But the fact that they no longer find it politically expedient to explicitly mention the matter is telling.
In fact, some even altered the way they discussed marriage equality from the last time they ran. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), running for re-election in 2008, noted on his website that he “aggressively supported and voted for a federal amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman.” By 2014, however, that language had been scrubbed. Now, Graham simply says he “supported laws to define the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman.” Though he doesn’t mention the specific laws he’s referring to — most likely the recently struck-down Defense of Marriage Act — it’s important to note that a constitutional amendment is not a law.
Of the nine current Republican senators who supported a constitutional amendment and are running for re-election in 2014 — Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Thad Cochran (R-MS), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Graham, James Inhofe (R-OK), McConnell, Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Sessions — six avoided endorsing the FMA on their websites.
Meanwhile, four candidates — Jim Oberweis in Illinois, Kevin Crow in Oklahoma, and South Carolina contenders Bill Connor and Benjamin Dunn — explicitly call for decisions about same-sex marriage to be left to states, rather than the federal government.
Nationwide, many prominent Republicans have been toning down their rhetoric on the issue of marriage equality, if not always changing their positions. Even a stalwart like former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) no longer wants to talk about marriage equality, despite the fact that a judge he recommended legalized same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania last month. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who vigorously opposes equality, summed up the likely thinking of many of his Republican colleagues on the matter in May: “Let’s face it, anybody who does not believe that gay marriage is going to be the law of the land just hasn’t been observing what’s going on.”