CPAC Welcomes Gay-Rights Groups After Years of Exclusion

Participants talk with a representatives from GOProud, an organization that represents gay conservatives and their allies, at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park February 11, 2011 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Feb. 19, 2014, 6:19 a.m.

Meet the kinder, gentler Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence.

New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, snubbed last year after palling around with Pres­id­ent Obama, is com­ing. So is GO­Proud, the gay-rights group that was banned for the past few years amid noisy boy­cotts from crit­ics and sup­port­ers. There’s even a pan­el de­bat­ing the mer­its of med­ic­al marijuana.

“CPAC is about find­ing con­ser­vat­ive solu­tions to every chal­lenge in Amer­ica and not just say­ing ‘no,’ ” said Al Carde­n­as, chair­man of the Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on, which runs the con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton. “We’re de­term­ined to win the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­an sup­port.”

The an­nu­al de­bate over CPAC’s par­ti­cipants and fo­cus re­flects the broad­er, on­go­ing dia­logue over grow­ing the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment and the Re­pub­lic­an Party without com­prom­ising core prin­ciples. Gay rights are a ma­jor part of that de­bate, as con­ser­vat­ive groups re­main firmly op­posed to gay mar­riage des­pite polls show­ing in­creas­ing and ma­jor­ity sup­port.

The dis­pute with GO­Proud dates back to 2011, when a num­ber of so­cially con­ser­vat­ive groups, in­clud­ing the Her­it­age Found­a­tion and the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil, ob­jec­ted to the group’s in­volve­ment and de­clined to par­ti­cip­ate. In­sults were traded between GO­Proud lead­ers and ACU board mem­bers, cul­min­at­ing in the group’s ex­clu­sion.

Two former GO­Proud sum­mer in­terns, Ross Hem­minger and Matt Bech­stein, took over last sum­mer and sought to re­pair the bit­terly frayed re­la­tion­ship. Un­der a com­prom­ise reached last week, they will at­tend the March 6-8 gath­er­ing as guests, without spon­sor­ship or a booth. GO­Proud sees the lower-pro­file role as an im­port­ant first step.

“We really just want to be part of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment,” said Hem­minger, a vet­er­an of the los­ing Sen­ate cam­paigns by Scott Brown and Gab­ri­el Gomez in Mas­sachu­setts. “We want to es­tab­lish a fruit­ful and re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ship.”

Dan Schneider, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the ACU, praised the GO­Proud dir­ect­ors for their “new vis­ion” of pro­mot­ing con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples from gun rights to op­pos­i­tion to abor­tion.

“We wel­come GO­Proud’s at­tend­ance at this year’s CPAC con­fer­ence,” Schneider said in an e-mail. “I be­lieve their pres­ence could help es­tab­lish a pro­duct­ive re­la­tion­ship in the fu­ture.”

His com­ments rep­res­ents a ma­jor shift in tone. But not in policy — un­til GO­Proud is al­lowed to co-spon­sor the con­fer­ence, said Jimmy LaS­alvia, GO­Proud’s former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. “There has been no change in the ACU’s policy since 2011,” LaS­alvia said in an e-mail. “There likely won’t be real change at the ACU un­til their old, out-of-touch lead­er­ship re­tires.”

In ad­di­tion to bring­ing to­geth­er thou­sands of con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists from around the coun­try, CPAC serves as an in­form­al cattle call for po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial con­tenders. This year’s crop in­cludes Christie, Marco Ru­bio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ry­an, Rick San­tor­um, and Bobby Jin­dal — none of whom have come out in fa­vor of gay mar­riage.

But 65 per­cent of CPAC’s par­ti­cipants are un­der 25 years old, and polls show ac­cept­ance of gay mar­riage is highest among young people. Hem­minger and Bech­stein, both in their 20s, say they hope to open GO­Proud chapters in all 50 states. Neither of them lives in Wash­ing­ton, and they see them­selves more as grass­roots or­gan­izers than spokes­men for gay rights.

“We want to help grow the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” said Bech­stein, who lives in South­ern Cali­for­nia. “Our agenda is to get Re­pub­lic­ans — ideally pro-gay Re­pub­lic­ans — elec­ted.”

In a sign of the times, Bech­stein poin­ted to Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for gov­ernor in two Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing states that that al­low gay mar­riage. Charlie Baker, who chose an openly gay Re­pub­lic­an as his run­ning mate in his 2010 bid in Mas­sachu­setts, is vy­ing for gov­ernor again. His run­ning mate this time is a former law­maker who re­cently came out in fa­vor of gay mar­riage. And in Cali­for­nia, former U.S. Treas­ury of­fi­cial Neal Kashkari is run­ning for gov­ernor as a fisc­al con­ser­vat­ive who also hap­pens to sup­port abor­tion rights and gay mar­riage. “That’s my plat­form, jobs and edu­ca­tion. That’s it,” he said when he an­nounced his cam­paign last month.  One of the lead­ing House Re­pub­lic­an re­cruits, former San Diego coun­cil­man Carl De­Maio, is openly gay and fea­tured his same-sex part­ner in a re­cent cam­paign ad­vert­ise­ment.

After the New Mex­ico Su­preme Court ruled in Decem­ber that ban­ning same-sex mar­riage is un­con­sti­tu­tion­al, Gov. Susana Mar­tinez said she wouldn’t push for a con­sti­tu­tion­al ban, call­ing it “the law of the land.” The slow but grow­ing ac­cept­ance of gay mar­riage among elec­ted Re­pub­lic­ans is strik­ing in com­par­is­on to the unity shown in op­pos­i­tion to abor­tion rights. Last month, Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Re­ince Priebus joined an anti-abor­tion march and the party passed a res­ol­u­tion say­ing it would not back down from its po­s­i­tion.

“People are be­gin­ning to ask me why I’m a gay Re­pub­lic­an less and less, which means we’re suc­cess­ful,” said Hem­minger, who lives in Bo­ston. “Things really are chan­ging.”

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