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Kentucky attorney general won't appeal gay marriage ruling

On Tuesday, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway announced he would not be appealing a federal order striking down part of Kentucky's same-sex marriage ban.
A gay couple takes their wedding vows.
A gay couple takes their wedding vows.

With surging Obamacare enrollments, dismal polling numbers for the Senate’s top Republican, and now, an attorney general who won’t fight to keep a key part of Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban, it’s worth asking the question: Is the Bluegrass State bluer than we all thought?

On Tuesday, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway said he would not appeal a federal order requiring Kentucky officials to recognize same-sex marriages performed in one of the 17 states that allow them. That decision, issued last month and scheduled to take effect on March 20, struck down part of the state’s same-sex marriage ban, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2004. Though gay couples still cannot obtain marriage licenses from Kentucky clerks (that's the subject of a different lawsuit,) U.S. District Judge John Heyburn’s ruling entitles those legally married elsewhere to the same spousal rights and benefits given to every married heterosexual couple in the state.

Conway is the eighth attorney general in the country to abandon such laws in the face of mounting legal victories for marriage equality.

“There are those who believe it’s my mandatory duty, regardless of my personal opinion, to continue to defend this case through the appellate process, and I have heard from many of them,” said Conway in a press conference Tuesday. “However, I came to the inescapable conclusion that, if I did so, I would be defending discrimination. That I will not do.”

Shortly after Conway’s announcement, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear -- also a Democrat -- went against his state's attorney general and said he would hire outside attorneys to appeal Heyburn’s Feb. 12 ruling. In a written statement, Beshear warned that there could be “legal chaos” if Heyburn chose not to stay his decision while the appeals process played out. As of Tuesday, no such stay had been granted beyond March 20.

“Other Kentucky courts may reach different and conflicting decisions,” said the governor. “Employers, health care providers, governmental agencies and others faced with changing rules need a clear and certain roadmap. Also, people may take action based on this decision only to be placed at a disadvantage should a higher court reverse the decision.”

"I understand and respect the deep and strong emotions and sincere beliefs of Kentuckians on both sides of this issue," he continued, "but all Kentuckians deserve an orderly process that will bring certainty and finality to this important matter.”

While Beshear’s move makes clear the fight for marriage equality in Kentucky is far from over, gay rights advocates still applauded Tuesday’s development. Marc Solomon, national campaign director at Freedom to Marry, said in a statement that the attorney general’s decision was “the right thing to do,” and that it furthered “the case across the country that Kentucky, the South, and all of America is ready for the freedom to marry.”

But it’s not just same-sex marriage that Kentucky may be ready for. Despite having voted Republican in every presidential election since 1996, and its fiercely conservative representation in Congress, Kentucky now looks to be yielding some ground to the progressive agenda.

Last week, Gov. Beshear announced 265,000 Kentuckians had enrolled for Obamacare, and that over 200,000 of them did so through qualifying for Medicaid -- the opposition to which has been something of a test among Republicans to measure conservative mettle. Additionally, a series of polls have shown Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in grave danger of losing his long-held Republican seat. A Rasmussen poll released last month marked the tenth to show McConnell either tied with or trailing his likely opponent, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Taken together, progressives are confident these signs point to a potential political shift on the horizon.

“From social issues like marriage equality to economic populism issues like increasing Social Security benefits, a populist agenda is popular even in a perceived red state like Kentucky,” said Laura Friedenbach, spokesperson for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an email to msnbc. “That’s great news for Democrats, and means we should stay on offense instead of worrying about defense.”

Conservatives see it differently, and not without good reason. Later in the week, Paducah, Ky., will host members of the Lone Oak Baptist Church as they raffle guns to families attending their “Second Amendment Celebration” -- hardly the picture of reigning progressivism. It also wasn't that long ago that Kentucky's junior Republican senator, Rand Paul, made the link between same-sex marriage and marriage between a human and non-human, before squashing the suggestion as a joke. 

“I don’t think there’s been a seismic shift within the state,” said Scott Lasley, Chairman of the Warren County GOP and a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, to msnbc. “My general sense is that all these things people are looking for, it’s something that’s not quite there. This is still going to be one of the most conservative states out there.”

Maybe so. But if Kentucky isn’t taking home the “progressive state of the year” award anytime soon, it may at least be in the running for the “bluest red state” title.