Skip to main content
ABC News
Popularity of ‘Don’t Ask’ Repeal May Have Drawn Republican Votes

Here’s an important, but not surprising, statistic from Saturday’s vote to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

There are, in the lame duck session, 11 Republican senators from states that President Obama carried in 2008. Of these, 7 voted with the Democrats to repeal the policy, while 3 voted against it. (One other — the retiring Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire — did not vote at all.)

By contrast, right there are now 31 Republican senators from states that Senator John McCain won in 2008. Just one of these — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — voted to repeal the ban on gay servicemembers. Another 28 voted against it, and two did not vote.

Ms. Murkowski just won re-election as a write-in candidate, running against a conservative Republican. She is the only Republican to have voted both to repeal the ban on openly gay soldiers and to break a filibuster on the Dream Act, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Ms. Murkowski clearly seems to feel as though she has license to legislate as a moderate.

The three Republicans from states Mr. Obama carried who voted against the bill, meanwhile, are each something of an unusual case. Iowa’s Chuck Grassley just won re-election and, since he will be 83 in 2016, may not run for it again. Indiana’s Richard Lugar will face re-election in 2012, but he is is extremely popular among Hoosiers in general and may face a stronger threat from a Republican primary challenge than in the general election (although, interestingly, he joined Ms. Murkowski in voting for cloture on the Dream Act.) And Florida’s George LeMieux is retiring.

In what reflects a shift from the way that gay rights initiatives have been perceived in the past, however, other Republicans seemed to conclude they might have been taking on some measure of risk by voting to perpetuate a policy that a clear majority of the public wanted to see repealed.

The yea votes from the two Republicans from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who often break party ranks, were not surprising — nor was that from Scott Brown of Massachusetts. (Ms. Snowe and Mr. Brown will face the voters in 2012). But the vote from John Ensign of Nevada, who is ordinarily quite conservative, was more out of character. Between Mr. Ensign’s personal scandals and the fact that Nevada seems to be transitioning from a purple state into a blue one, he is probably the most vulnerable Republican senator running for re-election in 2012.

Two other Republicans, Mark Kirk of Illinois, who won election by a narrow margin in November, and Richard Burr of North Carolina, who won re-election by 12 points in November but who has tepid approval ratings, may have cast a yea vote with an eye toward 2016.

All of this is just Politics 101: when a policy initiative enjoys the support of 60 or 70 or 80 percent of the public, it is liable to garner some bipartisan support. By contrast, the Dream Act, which has received much less polling but which Gallup showed as having the support of a notably smaller majority (54 percent) of the public, received fewer Republican votes, and also saw several vulnerable Democrats — like John Tester of Montana — break ranks. (I’ve gotten a few e-mails asking whether Republicans from states with a large number of Hispanic voters were unwise to have voted to filibuster the Dream Act. They may have been, but those states with a large number of Hispanic voters also tend to be those where anti-immigrant sentiment is more pronounced among white votes, so the conclusion is not self-evident.)

Nevertheless, the Republican support that Democrats won on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — as well as that for the tax policy compromise negotiated by Mr. Obama and the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, — may reflect a change in the incentives that Republican Congressmen are facing. While a couple of the bills that Democrats passed in the 111th Congress, like their heath care plan, were unpopular with the public, many lower-profile measures polled quite well — but they nevertheless received almost no Republican support.

In voting against these policies, Republicans may have been gambling that Democrats would be in such a defensive posture that they would not be able to raise public awareness about these votes — like the fact that every Senate Republican voted against pay-go legislation, for instance, or that just three of them voted for a popular financial reform bill.

Indeed, that seems to have been a good gamble: Democrats spent almost all of their time on the campaign trail defending their own votes rather than critiquing those that Republicans had made. And when they attacked Republicans, it usually surrounded issues of character rather than policy.

Now, however, Republicans have more to lose — and with major parts of the Democratic agenda like environmental and immigration policy likely to be stalled, their votes on issues like “don’t ask, don’t tell” may receive more scrutiny. It cannot be taken for granted, therefore, that Republicans will oppose Democratic policies as consistently and as uniformly as they had before.

But unfortunately for Democrats, once Republicans take over the House next month, they will have limited ability to push those policies forward in the first place.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.