Gay marriage fight brewing inside GOP

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W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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A growing push to get Republicans to alter their position on same-sex marriage could put some of the party’s major donors and political strategists in conflict with social conservative activists who make up a large part of the GOP at the grassroots level.

The debate illustrates a wider rift between Republicans who believe their party is on the wrong side of history on gay rights generally and those who feel the GOP is marginalizing the social issues that inspired millions of evangelical Christians — a large Republican voting bloc — to enter politics.

The bipartisan Respect for Marriage Coalition has already released a pair of ads seeking to sway Republicans in favor of gay marriage, including a commercial featuring supportive comments from former first lady Laura Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Bush has asked for the footage of her, taken from a 2010 interview with CNN, to be removed from the ad.

More than 130 Republicans signed an amicus brief advising the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8, California’s popularly enacted ban on gay marriage. This number includes several senior advisers to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, including top aide Beth Myers. Romney opposed gay marriage during his run for the White House.

“The only surprise here is that Romney himself didn’t join them,” social conservative leader Bob vander Plaats complained to the Washington Examiner.

Both Ken Mehlman, who managed George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, and Steve Schmidt, a senior strategist for John McCain in 2008, subsequently endorsed gay marriage. Neither of their bosses campaigned as gay marriage supporters, however. At the time many political observers credited an Ohio ballot initiative against same-sex matrimony with helping Bush win a second term, although some later studies cast doubt on that theory.

One-third of Bush’s votes that year came from white evangelical Christians.

Mehlman announced that he was both gay and a supporter of same-sex marriage in 2010, more than three years after stepping down as chairman of the Republican National Committee. He has since apologized for not speaking out during the 2004 campaign.

Since then, there has been a pronounced shift in public opinion on the issue. A November 2012 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans “believe same-sex marriages should be recognized by law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.” That was tied for the highest public approval of gay marriage since Gallup began polling on the issue.

But only 30 percent of Republicans supported gay marriage, while 69 percent were opposed. That is closer to the breakdown in public opinion in the country as a whole — 27 percent in favor of gay marriage, 68 percent opposed — when Gallup started polling on the issue in 1996.

That was also the same year strong bipartisan majorities in Congress passed and Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition to same-sex marriage and allowed states to refuse to honor gay nuptials performed legally in other states.

These numbers stand in contrast with the results of a National Journal poll of Republican insiders. Only 11 percent of the GOP politicos surveyed by the magazine said their party should oppose gay marriage, while 47 percent said Republicans should avoid the issue. One insider is quoted as saying, “It is what it is, and it is not going away — more and more, people do not care.”

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, disagrees. “Only an elite that believes the Republican Party can exist in abandoning traditional marriage,” Brown told The Daily Caller News Foundation, saying that support for gay marriage is limited to “the country club wing” of the party and that alienating social conservatives would be like “severing a limb” from the GOP.

“Marriage outpolled Romney by 6.8 percentage points in the states where they were both on the ballot,” he added. Brown’s group has vowed to spend $500,000 to defeat any Minnesota Republican legislator who votes for gay marriage, claiming credit for helping to defeat three of four New York Republican state senators who voted in favor of gay marriage.

Yet New Hampshire’s Republican-controlled state legislature defeated a bill that would have repealed gay marriage in that state. Major Republican donor Paul Singer, a hedge fund manager who helped sway GOP votes in favor of same-sex marriage in New York, donated $250,000 to the anti-repeal campaign.

GOP commentator Margaret Hoover points to 206 Republican lawmakers, many of them from New Hampshire’s massive legislature, who have voted in favor of gay marriage. “Huge majorities of Republicans under 30 support [same-sex] marriage,” she told TheDC News Foundation. “It’s where we need to be as a pro-freedom party.”

Craig Stowell is a Republican and Marine Corps veteran featured in one of the Respect for Marriage Coalition ads. “I didn’t use to understand the importance of same-sex marriage, but after learning my brother was gay I wanted the same rights for him,” he said in the commercial. “He was the best man at my wedding and I want to be the best man at his.”

“A lot of people my age and younger don’t understand the allure of this issue,” Stowell told TheDC News Foundation. “I’d be happy just to have [opposition to gay marriage] taken out of the party platform.”

Former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman argued “marriage equality is a conservative cause” in an article for The American Conservative, a magazine co-founded by Pat Buchanan. Huntsman is also a former governor of the socially conservative, predominantly Mormon state of Utah.

Republican strategist Liz Mair told TheDC News Foundation that shifting on marriage would even help the party close the technology gap with the Democrats, a deficiency noted in the last two presidential elections. “It’s just a fact that actual technologists — the people building the tools and systems of the future in Silicon Valley, Redmond, Northern Virginia, Austin, and the people who we don’t currently have sufficient access to because they just aren’t that into the GOP — are overwhelmingly either liberal or libertarian,” she said in an email. “We’re not going to get the liberals, but we can get the people who are for lower taxes and less regulation.”

Social conservatives nevertheless say that the Republican movement for same-sex marriage is exaggerated. Most of the Respect for Marriage Coalition members are, according to their website, liberal interest groups. This includes the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, High School Democrats of America, the National Council of La Raza, and Stop the Deportations.

Brown argued that many of the Republicans who signed the anti-Proposition 8 amicus brief aren’t especially conservative either. “Two Republican congressmen and a bunch of folks who aren’t going to run for office again?” he said. “Christine Todd Whitman? Give me a break.”

In fact, some social conservatives liken it to 1980s and early ’90s attempt by GOP strategists, donors, and blue state elected officials like then New Jersey Gov. Whitman and Massachusetts Gov. William Weld to delete the pro-life plank from the Republican platform. The momentum on the abortion issue ultimately shifted enough for these efforts to die. “This is not a new fight in the Republican Party,” Brown said.

“This issue isn’t like abortion. Public opinion has been consistent on abortion and, frankly, if anything has gotten more pro-life,” countered Hoover. “With marriage, the trajectory is clear.”

What is less clear is how a Supreme Court ruling overturning either Proposition 8 or the Defense of Marriage Act would impact that trajectory, especially among Republicans. While many prominent Republican supporters of same-sex marriage are publicly urging the Court to act, some pro-gay marriage GOP sources worry it will detract from legislative momentum and cause 2016 presidential candidates to double down in their opposition.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, has said that while he opposes same-sex marriage, it should be a state issue. President Barack Obama also said states should decide when he came out in favor of gay marriage last year. A Supreme Court decision could nationalize the issue and renew social conservative calls for a federal marriage amendment.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy are regarded as the Court’s swing votes on gay marriage. Both men are Republican appointees.

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