Inevitable: Lisa Murkowski declares support for gay marriage

Normally this is where I ask who had her as the next domino to tumble in the big Senate gay-marriage pool. No need this time. Everyone did, right? Back in March, during the Democrats’ panderpalooza, Murkowski used the telltale E-word to hedge on her position. Three months later, with the country distracted by various scandals, a new war in Syria, and the joys of amnesty, it’s safe-ish for a centrist Republican from a reddish state to admit what the whole world already knew. It was either going to be her or the similarly opaque Susan Collins who’d become the third Republican to back gay marriage publicly. Collins will almost certainly be the fourth, although she may take a while longer to speak up.

Most of the statements issued by Senators to announce their switches boil down to “it’s a matter of love” or right-side-of-history stuff like “my kids don’t understand what the big deal is about SSM.” Murkowski herself made the latter point back in March when she started talking about “evolving,” but the official switch requires something more thoughtful when you’re a Republican from a Republican state. Her shrewd solution: Pitch it as a move towards smaller, less intrusive government and family formation. In fact, to my surprise, her statement explaining her reversal is probably the strongest issued by a senator so far:

The Supreme Court is set to make a pair of decisions on the topic of marriage equality shortly, and the national conversation on this issue is picking back up. This is a significant moment for our nation when it comes to rethinking our society’s priorities and the role of government in Americans’ private lives and decisions, so I want to be absolutely clear with Alaskans. I am a life-long Republican because I believe in promoting freedom and limiting the reach of government. When government does act, I believe it should encourage family values. I support the right of all Americans to marry the person they love and choose because I believe doing so promotes both values: it keeps politicians out of the most private and personal aspects of peoples’ lives – while also encouraging more families to form and more adults to make a lifetime commitment to one another. While my support for same sex civil marriage is something I believe in, I am equally committed to guaranteeing that religious freedoms remain inviolate, so that churches and other religious institutions can continue to determine and practice their own definition of marriage.

With the notion of marriage – an exclusive, emotional, binding ‘til death do you part’ tie – becoming more and more an exception to the rule given a rise in cohabitation and high rates of divorce, why should the federal government be telling adults who love one another that they cannot get married, simply because they happen to be gay? I believe when there are so many forces pulling our society apart, we need more commitment to marriage, not less.

This thinking is consistent with what I hear from more and more Alaskans especially our younger generations. Like the majority of Alaskans, I supported a constitutional amendment in 1998 defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, but my thinking has evolved as America has witnessed a clear cultural shift. Fifteen years after that vote, I find that when one looks closer at the issue, you quickly realize that same sex unions or civil marriages are consistent with the independent mindset of our state – and they deserve a hands-off approach from our federal policies.

She’s not going to change any socially conservative minds on SSM with that, but she doesn’t have to. All she needs to do is convince them that supporting gay marriage isn’t incompatible with being a small-government Republican in good standing. If she does that, it’ll take the steam out of any effort to primary her over this. Although, given how Murkowski got elected in 2010, how much does she really care about primaries at this point?

Back in April, New York mag predicted that Murky would be the next Republican to turn followed by Collins, Saxby Chambliss, Richard Burr, and McCain. I’m not so sure. If Collins had been safely reelected three years ago like Murkowski, I think she’d have switched ages ago — maybe even before Rob Portman. But her seat is up next year and tea partiers in Maine have proved they’re capable of flexing some muscle when they want to. She’ll have a hard enough time fending them off without antagonizing social conservatives too. Then again, literally no one believes that Collins is some kind of fortress against gay marriage’s advance. Her switch is a fait accompli, whether before the primary or after. Who’s going to be shocked/disappointed in Maine to find that a Republican who votes with the center on most issues is also a centrist on this one? She’ll switch before the primary, I bet. Or, at the very latest, the day after.