President Obama invoking the Stonewall riots in his Inaugural Address. The Boy Scouts considering dropping the ban on openly gay scouts and volunteers. A record number of openly gay and lesbian members elected to Congress in 2012. A gaping generational divide in public opinion on gay marriage.
There’s a seismic shift in cultural opinion that’s taking place at warp speed when it comes to gay rights — a fact that’s evident simply by looking at the headlines over the last month. But as the Republican Party tries to moderate its position on immigration, it faces a much more difficult task dealing with an even more polarizing issue where the demographic trend lines are against them.
For many in the Republican Party, the trajectory is now unmistakable. Just as Republican leaders have urged the party to tackle immigration reform in order to appeal to Hispanics, a smaller but equally vocal group of strategists are urging the party to reconsider positions on gay rights to win over younger voters.
In 2012 — the first presidential election year in which a majority of Americans expressed their support for legalizing same-sex marriage — gay-marriage advocates scored historic victories on four state ballot initiatives. Public opinion is now on the side of gay-marriage supporters: A December 2012 Gallup poll showed a 53 percent majority of Americans now back same-sex marriage, a 13 point jump since 2008, with a whopping 73 percent between the ages of 18 and 29 supporting it.
“What you’re seeing in the aftermath of the 2012 election cycle is a number of Republicans who are concluding opposition to LGBT rights as it pertains to civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples is not a winning issue politically,” said Gregory T. Angelo, the new executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, the largest GOP gay-rights group. “There is a sentiment among Republicans that even if they’re opposed to it, there’s political risk in banging the drum.”
Phil Musser, a GOP strategist who advised Tim Pawlenty's presidential campaign, said the trend lines are clear.
“The future of the Republican Party is dependent on appealing to the millennial generation — that’s the future — and attitudes are changing on this issue pretty radically,” Musser said. “People of good faith can differ on this but having a message that articulates acceptance and tolerance is key.”
But how does the GOP even moderate its stance given its traditional dependence on social conservatives? “Focusing the broad message of the party on economic growth and economic freedom,” Musser said, “and not trying to be a referee on social values.”
Last summer’s Republican National Convention illustrated the challenges Republicans face in talking about the issue. For the first time, the Log Cabin Republicans were given the opportunity to participate in the platform-drafting process, lobbying delegates to take out language that could brand the party antigay. But more prominent were the voices of social-conservative organizations, such as the Family Research Council, which ultimately succeeded in including tough measures opposing gay marriage.
Similarly, under their breaths, Republican leaders encouraged GOProud, another Republican gay-rights organization, to have a presence in Tampa, according to Jimmy LaSalvia, the group’s executive director, but in prime time, they were shunted off to the sidelines, given nosebleed seats, and kept out of sight.
LaSalvia is still skeptical that the necessary changes will be undertaken, particularly in reaching out to the LGBT community and moderating the GOP's tone when it comes to discussing marriage equality.
“There are more and more Republicans who are starting to get it. I’m not convinced yet that enough are willing to make changes that are necessary,” he said. “They’re not done losing yet.”
It’s difficult for some to imagine a Republican presidential candidate in 2016 openly embracing same-sex marriage and getting past the early caucuses and primaries, which are still driven by party purists, or even an openly gay speaker at the Republican National Convention in 2016.
Slightly easier to envision is GOP candidates adopting the stance that social issues, such as marriage, are best left up to the states — much like the tactic Mitt Romney used to blunt criticism of the individual mandate in his Massachusetts health care law.
“I think definitely that will work for some people; it’s not going to work for all,” said Craig Robinson, an Iowa-based GOP strategist.
“People need to realize you can’t just say we need to do this, and everybody’s going to do it. There’s 600,000 Republicans in Iowa and we’re never going to agree on everything,” Robinson added. “It’s a delicate situation for Republicans — marriage equality has a long way to go before it’s accepted in the party.”
Still, there seem to be signs that movement is happening — and in some unexpected quarters.
Newt Gingrich, the same presidential candidate who endorsed the Iowa Family Leader and the National Organization of Marriage’s pledges opposing gay marriage as he attempted to court activists in Iowa last January, recently said in an interview with the Huffington Post that the GOP could no longer close its eyes to the course of public opinion. Gingrich added that an acceptable solution would be to distinguish between "marriage in a church from a legal document issued by the state."
Ken Mehlman, a former Republican National Committee chairman and Bush campaign manager who came out in 2010, launched a nonprofit called Project Right Side late last year to make the conservative case for same-sex marriage. He was in Iowa earlier this week meeting with activists and donors to build support.
And Foster Friess, the mega-wealthy evangelical donor who kept culture warrior extraordinaire Rick Santorum’s campaign afloat in its earlier, leaner days, was recently asked about gay marriage at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
“They’re people just like you and I, are we going to come down and penalize them for being gay?” Friess said of the LGBT community. “I don’t believe the Republican Party should really force any of their members to have one feeling or the other.”