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Will Pro-LGBT Stances Hurt GOP Senators?

Portman supported same-sex marriage after his son came out as gay. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Portman supported same-sex marriage after his son came out as gay. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Three Republican senators who support same-sex marriage are up for re-election in 2016, but though all three face primary challenges, they are betting it won’t hurt their chances.  

Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are three of the four Republican senators who support same-sex marriage. (The fourth, Susan Collins of Maine, won re-election in 2014.)  

Last week, Kirk became the first Republican senator to co-sponsor the Equality Act, which would make sex, sexual orientation and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination or segregation in places of public accommodation under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., sponsored and introduced the bill. “Senator Kirk believes that life comes down to who you love and who loves you back, and that government should have no place in the middle,” Kirk’s campaign manager, Kevin Artl, said in a statement. “All Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, should be free from discrimination.” After that announcement, the Human Rights Campaign praised Kirk on its website.  

David Ormsby, a former press secretary for the Illinois Democratic Party who also runs a public relations firm, said Kirk’s stance could cut into the base of his Democratic opponent. The two candidates for the Democratic nomination are Rep. Tammy Duckworth and former president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League Andrea Zopp.  

But Ormsby also noted that a poll released in December commissioned by the Illinois Observer,  where he is editor, showed Kirk has only a 37.6 approval rating among Republican primary voters. Conversely Gov. Bruce Rauner, also a Republican, enjoys a 70.8 percent approval rating among the same group. According to the Illinois Observer, the polling memo said Kirk’s voting record was not as conservative as Republicans would like.  

His stand on gay rights, Ormsby said, is an issue that “undermines him with Republican voters.” Kirk currently faces a primary challenge from businessman James Marter.  

It could also pose trouble for Murkowski, who announced her support for same-sex marriage in 2013. She lost the Republican primary in her state in 2010 to attorney Joe Miller, and then ran a successful write-in campaign.  

“We have no idea what impact it could have on the race because, without a declared opponent for the primary or general election, we are unsure what our race will look like at this point,” Scott Kendall, campaign coordinator for Murkowski, said in an email. Murkowski faces a challenge in her primary from Thomas Lamb, who ran for a seat in the state house in 2006 but lost.  

Also in 2013, Portman announced his support for same-sex marriage when his son came out as gay; both of his potential opponents on the Democratic side, former Gov. Ted Strickland and Cincinnati City Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld also support same-sex marriage.  

“I think this is only good news,” said Grant Stancliff, communications director of Equality Ohio, noting that Strickland had spoken at a rally and had been more vocally supportive of same-sex marriage, but that the organization has also worked with Portman on non-discrimination issues.  

Portman has faced some criticism from his right on the issue, and the Greene County Republican Central Committee recently announced that because of the senator’s support for same-sex marriage, it would back Portman’s primary opponent Don Eckhart, a retired former state official, who ran for a House seat in 2008.  

But the fact Portman will still likely win his primary shows a change in the Republican Party, said Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national pro-LGBT Republican group. “Voters are not obsessing over the marriage equality decision,” following the Supreme Court’s decision last year, Angelo. And if anything, he said, “support for marriage equality will likely pay dividends in the voting booth.”  

Simply supporting same-sex marriage now may not be enough to satisfy supporters of LGBT rights. In December, James Obergefell, the plaintiff in the same-sex marriage case that went to the Supreme Court last year, endorsed Strickland, noting Strickland’s opposition to conversion therapy and support for the Equality Act. Obergefell also noted that Portman only had a 45 percent score from Human Rights Campaign. “Senator Portman’s legislative record indicates he believes in only 45 percent equality for the LGBTQ community, and 45 percent is not enough,” he said in a statement.  


Contact Garcia at and follow him on Twitter @EricMGarcia



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