Remaining Quiet on LGBTQ+ Rights Is a Bad Campaign Strategy

Sen. Joe Manchin (photo by Ana Lowery)

Ever since House Democrats ensured the speaker’s gavel returned to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi in January, the party has been vocal in its support for LGBTQ+ rights in the face of the discrimination perpetuated by the Trump administration. However, despite both House and Senate Democrats fulfilling many of their campaign promises to reverse the discriminatory actions taken by the White House, West Virginia senior Senator Joe Manchin has not followed suit. As of March 18, Manchin will be the only Democrat in the upper chamber of Congress to oppose the Equality Act.

Sen. Manchin’s home state of West Virginia is known for its conservative voting preferences, and less-than-stellar record on support for LGBTQ+ rights. Manchin is a moderate Democrat who in 2018 won reelection to the 116th US Congress by less than twenty thousand votes, or three-tenths of one percent of the total vote, which tells you a lot about what positions he may take to survive politically.

Every two years when the congressional term ends, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) releases its “Congressional Scorecard: Measuring Support for Equality,” which gives each member of the House of Representatives and Senate a ranking from zero to 100, indicating the LGBTQ+ equality voting record of that member. The report typically considers ten or so votes that HRC considered to be the most crucial and impactful votes for the LGBTQ+ community for the given two-session term. These votes are comprised of resolutions (formal statements made by the US Congress on a specific issue), bills, and cabinet and judicial nominations.

In the 113th Congress (January 3, 2013-January 3, 2015) only three members of the Senate’s Democratic Caucus opposed same-sex marriage: Manchin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. When that term ended, HRC gave Manchin a score of eighty-five and Senators Landrieu and Pryor an eighty. While these scores were astronomically better than their Republican counterparts, the majority of whom received a rating of zero, they were still lower than what the average Democrat received and were largely due to the fact that all three voted against the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would overturn the Defense against Marriage Act and require the federal government to acknowledge the marital status of two individuals of the same sex. In addition to blocking legislation that would have been an enormous step for marriage equality, the three also opposed the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which required federal schools to disallow discrimination against students on the grounds of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Because Landrieu and Pryor were up for reelection at the time same-sex marriage cases were making their way through federal courts (and would culminate in Obergefell v. Hodges at the Supreme Court), they were forced to address marriage equality on the campaign trail. When asked about her position during the last debate before a runoff vote, Senator Landrieu said, “My personal views have evolved quite a bit, but I have said on record that I support the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.” Senator Pryor was asked the same question in Arkansas and he replied that he believed in “traditional marriage.” Landrieu and Pryor were defeated by their GOP opponents in the 2014 midterms, winning only 44.1 percent and 39.4 percent of the vote, respectively.

If Manchin learned from Landrieu’s and Pryor’s fall from power in 2014, it can now be said that his current position on civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community is short-sighted. Following his 2018 reelection, Manchin now has a chance to move his stance on LGBTQ+ rights to the Left, as he doesn’t have to run for reelection for another six years. In the past decade the US population has become more supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. While West Virginia’s conservative nature may have held it back to this point, the Virginians will evolve with the rest of the country, if their elected officials are willing to lead.