For years, American opinion on gay marriage has been shifting. Now lawmakers are in a mad dash to catch up.
In less than two weeks, seven senators — all from moderate or Republican-leaning states — announced their support, dropping one by one like dominos. Taken together, their proclamations reflected a profound change in the American political calculus: For the first time, elected officials from traditionally conservative states are starting to feel it’s safer to back gay marriage than risk being the last to join the cause.
“As far as I can tell, political leaders are falling all over themselves to endorse your side of the case,” Chief Justice John Roberts told lawyers urging the Supreme Court on Wednesday to strike down a law barring legally married gay couples from receiving federal benefits or recognition.
It was the second of two landmark gay-marriage cases the justices heard this week, the high court’s first major examination of gay rights in a decade. But the focus on the court cases — replete with colorful, camera- ready protests outside the court building — obscured the sudden emergence of a critical mass across the street in the Capitol as one by one, senators took to Facebook or quietly issued a statement to say that they, too, now support gay marriage.
For some Democrats, such as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the reversal would have been almost unfathomable just a few months ago as they fought for re-election. The potential risks were even greater for other Democrats such as North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, already top GOP targets when they face voters next year in states that President Barack Obama lost in November. After all, it was less than a year ago that voters in Hagan’s state approved a ban on gay marriage.