Shortly after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, the American Civil Liberties Union announced a new initiative aimed at winning Republican support for gay marriage at the state level.
The ACLU’s campaign will be led by Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who held senior positions in the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. Schmidt also managed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California gubernatorial re-election campaign.
Additionally, the ACLU announced the hiring of GOProud co-founder and former Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia. LaSalvia’s task will be outreach to gay conservatives, according to a statement released by the group.
The two Republicans were hired as part of a broader initiative challenging state legal and constitutional provisions that restrict marriage to a man and a woman. The ACLU is planning to spend $10 million on this effort through 2016.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero told The Daily Caller News Foundation that he was interested in reaching Republicans “where they are” and trying to change minds on marriage. He praised Schmidt as someone who would help connect them to GOP leaders in the nearly 40 states that do not permit same-sex marriage.
LaSalvia will play a similar role with the tea party. “Jimmy isn’t with the ACLU on issues like abortion or voting rights,” Romero said. “But he has connections that can help us reach the tea party.”
Romero told TheDC News Foundation that the ACLU decided to begin a “respectful dialogue” with Republicans after the oral arguments in the gay marriage cases before the Supreme Court. They concluded the court was unlikely to strike down state laws on marriage, and therefore engaging the states in a bipartisan manner was “the next step for marriage equality.”
“Momentum is everything in advocacy,” Romero said, hailing Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling — written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican appointee — as “a tipping point.”
While the ACLU’s alliance with Republican supporters of gay marriage is new, the push by GOP strategists and donors to change the party’s position has been going on for several years. Over 70 prominent Republicans signed an amicus brief urging the court to overturn Proposition 8, California’s state-level gay marriage ban.
Schmidt came out in support of same-sex nuptials after McCain was defeated in the 2008 presidential election. Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chairman who ran Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, announced his support for gay marriage in 2010.
Earlier this year, GOP sources told TheDC News Foundation that supporting gay marriage could help Republicans close the campaign technology gap with the Democrats.
“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,” Republican strategist Liz Mair wrote in an email.
One issue that could move the libertarians, she argued, was gay marriage.
“The Republican Party stands for freedom — for limited government intrusion in our personal lives and for freedom,” Schmidt said in the ACLU’s statement. “The issue of marriage equality is the Republican Party’s best chance to stand on the right side of history, create a meaningful legacy of fairness, and maintain relevance with young voters. I am proud to help the ACLU make all couples equal in the eyes of the law in all 50 states.”
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are all Republican officials who have recently endorsed same-sex marriage.
Romero said that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a GOP gay marriage opponent they hoped to persuade. He described same-sex matrimony as consonant with “Republican values” like “liberty and personal economy,” adding that churches would not be coerced.
“There are people of good will in the Republican Party,” he said, noting that President Barack Obama changed his mind on the issue. “People are evolving.”
A 2012 Gallup poll found that only 30 percent of Republicans nationwide supported gay marriage, close to where the country was as a whole when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
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