On March 27, North Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan became the first sitting senator from this state to endorse marriage equality. It was a historic move that broke years of mostly negative opposition on the issue from other North Carolina candidates.
During his 2004 vice presidential run, John Edwards would only endorse civil unions. His running mate, John Kerry, did the same, though his home state of Massachusetts had just become the first state to legalize same sex marriage. To win, they were advised, they had to oppose same sex marriage even for that one state. Former U.S. Senate candidate Erskine Bowles also stated his opposition to gay marriage in 2004.
“I believe marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman,” Bowles said during a debate with current Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, “and I’m thankful that in our state we don’t have to recognize marriage in other states.”
Bowles continued in the tradition of his father, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, of not succeeding in high profile political races. Burr beat him in his quest to represent the state in Washington.
North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, however, became the first candidate, running against Burr in 2010, to endorse full marriage equality in her platform and blazed the trail for Hagan’s endorsement now a little over two years later. Marshall ultimately lost to Burr.
One of Hagan’s likely challengers in 2014 will be state Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), current president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate. Berger was one of the most vocal cheerleaders for the state’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment, which passed 61-39 percent on May 8, 2012. Berger’s support for the amendment stayed at the top of his personal website’s newsfeed for nearly a year, only to be trumped by news of the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013 about two weeks ago.
Given the current political climate in North Carolina, with the legislature’s recent hard-right lean, it seems reasonable to conclude a Hagan vs. Berger race could turn into a referendum on a variety of progressive issues championed by Hagan and other Democrats, including gay marriage and LGBT rights in general. Though Hagan cannot totally set the tone of her campaign without knowing her opponent, it will be unfortunate if Berger beats her to the punch on this issue.
Hagan cannot take back her support now. Her leadership in advancing LGBT rights in North Carolina (and indeed for the country) could make her a possible leader for the entire South. But, Hagan will have to prevent Berger from gaining an upper hand on the issue. She has 18 months to humanize the LGBT community for North Carolinians and to more forcefully condemn the anti-LGBT amendment and other anti-LGBT legislation. She can neutralize this issue before it becomes one in her campaign.
Regrettably, even Burr may find himself in a similar position. In 2011, he surprised conservatives and progressives alike when he voted in favor of repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The repeal will be nearly five years old by the time Burr is up for re-election, but a Republican primary opportunist could easily take on Burr with this issue.
It is Burr, not Hagan, who is most likely to be hurt by support for LGBT equality. He can be forced into publicly defending his vote for the repeal and risk appearing like a pro-LGBT Southern Republican which, given Burr’s lengthy conservative track record, he certainly is not. Despite our chasm of political difference, I would not want to see Burr’s opportunity to run in his own party hurt because of his rather courageous stance on DADT, especially as more Republicans are poised to come out in support of further-reaching LGBT equality initiatives like marriage.
As for Hagan, the onus is now on her to remain a visible supporter of marriage equality and not destroy her chances of re-election. Her support is now public and she can’t remain silent or, as Jim Hunt and John Kerry can both attest, appearing to flip-flop on the issue.