Bracing ourselves for a new Senate

Commentary: Predictions on the 2013 mid-terms

In the spirit of Internet memes, Democrats in the U.S. Senate should make their own: “Backs gay marriage…doesn’t run for re-election.”

The community has seen a great wave of support from Democrats this year. Most in the U.S. Senate have come out in support for full marriage equality. Yet, the 2014 midterm elections could prove disappointing for them. Their stands, greatly appreciated, ultimately won’t be helpful if Democrats lose control of the body.

Midterm elections following a presidential re-election tend to favor the opposition party. The 33 members of the class of 2008 emerged during an optimistic time for the Democratic Party following the election of Barack Obama and the 2006 retaking of Congress. But, the last four years have been disheartening with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and what were, frankly, less than enjoyable results in 2012 despite the president’s re-election (particularly in the House and among state legislatures).

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The last mid-term handed control of the U.S. House to Republicans and the Tea Party. Could the same happen to the Senate in 2014?

Eight of the 19 Senate Democrats elected in 2008 are either at risk or not seeking re-election.  The latter camp is comprised of Senate veteran Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) and Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia).  Of the three, Harkin has been the most outspoken in favor of LGBT rights including strong endorsement of the Employee Non Discrimination Act (ENDA).  Johnson and Rockefeller have come out in favor of gay marriage to great applause from progressive commentators but barring any major LGBT legislation moving through Congress in 2014 (which, given the Republican/Tea Party majority in the House, seems unlikely) their stands are practically meaningless.

That leaves five races which will prove difficult for Democrats to win.

Earlier this month, I wrote about North Carolina’s Sen. Kay Hagan’s stance on marriage and her potential challenge from North Carolina Senate Pro Tempore, Phil Berger. In Alaska, Democrat Mark Begich has also come out in favor of gay marriage.  His likely, opponent, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, hasn’t displayed much opinion one way or another although he filed a measure in June 2012 allowing transgender Alaskans to change their gender on drivers’ licenses.  Gov. Sean Parnell, Sarah Palin’s successor both politically and ideologically, is a much darker prospect.

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Other close races will include Senate veteran Max Baucus (D-Montana) who will likely face conservative Champ Edmunds or Corey Stapleton.  Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) is a personal supporter of same-sex marriage but says she won’t go against the majority opinion of her state.  Both of her likely opponents are Tea Party-backed conservatives.  Noted creationist Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) will have a tight race but is a gay marriage opponent and would not factor into the political calculus here.

Sadly, the other races will likely fall along predictable blue state and red state lines.  Unfortunately, several red state Democrats, the Blue Dog Democrats, are at risk in 2014.  Though frustrating on several issues, their membership helps to solidify Democrat majorities in the Senate on a number of key issues including gay rights.

Republicans will not get a supermajority  in the U.S. Senate in 2014, but it is likely the current 53-45 split could reverse in favor of Republicans.  Committee posts and the position of majority leader would fall to Republicans.  Many of the current southern Republican power brokers including Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, Lamar Alexander and Jeff Sessions will also be on the line in 2014.  Each of them has held an electoral majority greater than 63 percent in either the 2008 or 2002 elections.  Graham won every district except Greenville, S.C., in 2008.

There are 18 months until the 2014 midterms with the tide of public opinion is moving in favor of expanding LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.  By the end of this year, a total of 10 states across the U.S. are expected to offer full marriage rights for same-sex couples. Social conservatives are grounding their heels and some states are threatening to buck the federal government on several issues.  This is painfully familiar to students of 1950s/60s history and those who lived through the Civil Rights Movement.  The 2014 midterms will be a test of how well we can maintain a Senate composition favorable to a more expeditious move toward greater equality.

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Posted by Jason Yonce

Jason Yonce is an active duty servicemember and freelance writer based in Jacksonville, N.C. He writes on a broad range of topics. You can reach him at defeatedcreek@yahoo.com.