There's no better example of the incentive some Democrats still have to oppose gay marriage than in Arkansas, where Pryor is up for reelection. No Senate Democrat running in 2014 represents a redder state than he does — President Obama lost there by more than 20 points — and Pryor is a top GOP midterm target. Multiple Republicans, rising star Rep. Tom Cotton the most prominent among them, have publicly contemplated a campaign against him.
While Democrats such as Landrieu have publicly ruminated about their position (the Louisianan has said she personally doesn't want to get in the way of two people who love each other, even as she concedes that most of her constituents feel differently), Pryor's dissents have been concise and firm. A spokesman told local media in Arkansas that the senator has a "moral belief that marriage is between a man and a woman."
The issue is twofold for Pryor. First, gay marriage simply isn't popular in conservative Arkansas. While the legislatures of many liberal states move to legalize it, lawmakers in the Razorback State approved a resolution earlier this year reaffirming their support of a statewide ban. (In 2004, 75 percent of the state's voters supported banning same-sex marriage.) Reliable public polling on the issue in Arkansas is scarce, but there's little doubt gay marriage remains unpopular. Keith Emis, a GOP consultant who does work for Cotton, estimated that only about one in three voters in next year's general election would back it. "You can't be for gay marriage and be a statewide elected official in Arkansas," he said.
More important, however, is the effect the issue has on Pryor's image. Gay marriage alone might not be enough to move voters against him, but bolstering the perception that he marches in line with the national Democratic Party could. His entire strategy hinges on convincing voters he's an Arkansas Democrat, not a Washington Democrat. Any issue — such as gay marriage or, in another current debate, guns — on which he can separate himself from his party is important.
What's more, Arkansas Democrats say that even though Pryor is likely to face some backlash from members of his party, most would acknowledge he's making the right move. "There'll be some supporters, maybe some donors on the national issues, who probably have already voiced their unhappiness both to Mark and his staff," said Robert McLarty, a Democratic consultant in the state who does not work for Pryor. "I do think you just pull those people to the side and say, "˜OK, you understand where we are politically in the state?' "
Pryor's decision, of course, raises a question: Are his colleagues Baucus, Begich, and Hagan making a mistake by supporting gay marriage? They might be: In Hagan's case, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly backed a ban only last year (soon thereafter, Obama publicly backed same-sex marriage). But North Carolina, and, to a lesser degree, Alaska and Montana, are far less conservative than Arkansas.