Who are the mystery Republican senators who would vote for marriage equality?

A protestor with a rainbow flag outside the Supreme Court
Carlos McKnight of Washington, waves a flag in support of gay marriage outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015. Photo: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The U.S. Senate was expected to vote on the Respect for Marriage Act this week. The bill, which was passed in the House last week with the support of 47 Republicans, is intended to enshrine the right to same-sex as well as interracial marriage into law, following the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade and Justice Clarence Thomas’s call for the court to reconsider Obergefell v. Hodges.

The Respect for Marriage Act would officially repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that forbade the federal government from legally recognizing same-sex marriages. In its place, the act would require the federal and state governments to recognize same-sex marriages as long as they occurred in states that offer them. If any state refuses to recognize such marriages, the act says, the spouses can sue.

Senate Democrats need to pick up 10 Republican votes to overcome the filibuster, and several key GOP lawmakers have signaled their support for the bill. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Rob Portman (R-OH) have said they will vote for it, while Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Ron Johnson (R-WI) have all signaled that they will likely vote for the bill. Others, like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have declined to flat out oppose the bill. McConnell is in an interracial marriage.

With 10 Republican votes potentially within reach—something that seems almost unimaginable given the political climate in recent years—LGBTQ advocacy organizations are doing everything they can to get the Respect for Marriage Act passed. With only a few GOP votes left to secure, activists have made a concerted push to get the bill to the finish line. Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was expected to call for a cloture vote this week, but with three Democrats along with Murkowski testing positive for COVID-19, that’s less certain.

So which Republican senators are being targeted as potential yes votes?

“There’s obviously a unique importance to passing this law in the South where I think every single state has either a statutory or a constitutional amendment on the books that if Obergefell were to be overturned, they would all take effect right away,” Campaign for Southern Equality communications director Adam Polaski told LGBTQ Nation. “We’re encouraging people to really speak that story to their federal officials and explain that this is their responsibility to protect the freedom to marry.”

To that end, the organization recently launched its new Meeting the Moment initiative, in part to help codify existing Supreme Court decisions like those in Obergefell, Windsor, and Lawrence v. Texas into law. They’ve set up an action page on Campaign for Southern Equality’s website where people can quickly and easily contact their Senators.

“We have a few supporters who are meeting with their senators directly,” Polaski says. “We have a supporter today who is a Republican, he’s the father of a gay daughter, who is really fired up about this and was excited to meet with Tom Tillis, and he just met with [North Carolina Senator] Richard Burr, and show them that they have Republican support behind this and this won’t be a controversial vote for them.”

Polaski says he’s optimistic about the Respect for Marriage Act’s chances, pointing to polling that indicates strong support for marriage equality even among Republican voters.

“I think we stand as good of a shot as ever of getting this through.”

Along with Tillis, Polaski thinks Burr could be another potential yes vote.

“Senator Burr voted with us to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in 2011. So, he’s a retiring senator, we hope that he would be excited to leave his legacy of doing the right thing before he leaves office. We hope to see him join Tillis in voting yes.”

West Virginia Senator Shelly Moore Capito is another Republican Polaski thinks needs to hear from LGBTQ constituents and allies.

“She’s taken meetings about the Equality Act and has been engaged on this. I think she’s spoken about the LGBT people in her life. I hope she goes the way of Rob Portman and is able to see that the LGBT people in her life want her to vote for this and she’ll do the right thing.”

Polaski also hopes that the Respect for Marriage Act will get more voters energized about other LGBTQ issues.

“We should use it as a tool to bring folks in and remind them of the passion that they felt about the freedom to marry, and also remind them that the work is not over and people are facing discrimination all the time outside of their marriages,” he explains. “We hope that folks who are newly activated around this…can also dig in and get behind the Equality Act and the Trans Bill of Rights. All the other things that we need to codify. There’s more to do than protect what we’ve already won.”

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