After Sen. Tom Carper (D) of Delaware endorsed marriage equality earlier this week, speculation turned to which Senate Democrat would be next. Dave Weigel predicted Bill Nelson of Florida, while I guessed Tim Johnson of South Dakota. Dave was right.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson reversed his opposition to gay marriage on Thursday, joining a swell of moderate Democrats to do so recently as public support for gay marriage has grown.
Nelson, a Protestant who last week insisted marriage should be between a man and a woman, said he concluded that stance was inconsistent with the beliefs embedded in the Declaration of Independence and his faith.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Nelson, “If we are endowed by our creator with rights, then why shouldn’t those be attainable by gays and lesbians? Simply put, if the Lord made homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, why should I discriminate against their civil marriage? I shouldn’t, and I won’t.”
The announcement comes as a bit of a surprise given that Nelson said largely the opposite literally last week, but nevertheless, the Floridian becomes the eighth Democratic senator to endorse marriage equality in just the last two weeks. At this point, only six of the 55-member Senate Democratic caucus have not yet endorsed marriage equality: Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
What do they all have in common? They’re red-state Democrats.
Also note, Nelson’s announcement carries some additional weight, because an important threshold has been crossed.
When Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) endorsed marriage equality on Tuesday, he became the 50th senator to do so – 48 Democrats and two Republicans. Florida’s Nelson, then, tips the scale and helps cross an important threshold – as of now, a majority of the U.S. Senate supports the right of same-sex couples to get legally married.
As a practical matter, there is no pending legislation for senators to vote on, so reaching this milestone doesn’t have a real-world impact on the larger cause of civil rights, but as symbolic matter, it’s still rather extraordinary.
Just a few years ago, the notion that a bipartisan majority of the Senate would be on record supporting marriage equality would have been very hard to predict. And yet, as of now, it’s a reality.