It’s barely been a week since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill allowing businesses to refuse service to gay customers due to religious beliefs.
You will not find a fired-up, conservative backlash at CPAC, the massive gathering of conservative activists. And, in particular, you won’t encounter people cheering over how to fight the latest state actions expanding gay marriage.
Marquee speakers during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference avoided the topic of gay rights, or alluded to it by mentioning things like Duck Dynasty, Chick-fil-A, and religious freedom. That’s a contrast from 2013, when a number of speakers mentioned their beliefs in more explicit terms. Marco Rubio of 2013 said, “Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot.” Marco Rubio in 2014 spoke largely of foreign policy and the American Dream.
Gay marriage could still come up at CPAC, but its not taking center stage thus far doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t largely oppose same-sex marriage. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 67 percent of self-identifying conservative Republicans oppose gay marriage; 53 percent strongly oppose it.
But it’s hard to say how that “strong opposition” translates into action. You can speak with CPAC attendees to get an idea of how activists feel about their party’s discourse on gay marriage, but even that is an imperfect measure. A number said they personally do not endorse same-sex marriage, but don’t want the GOP to focus on the issue, calling it a distraction. Others, particularly younger voters, voiced support for gay marriage while saying it’s a states-rights issue.
And 65 percent of CPAC attendees are under 25, which can help explain why the issue hasn’t come to the fore. “I think the gap is not so much political; it’s becoming more of a generational gap,” says Daniel Bergman, a 20-year-old attendee from New York who supports gay marriage.
“There are issues that affect the entire country, and gay marriage right now is used as a wedge issue for the youth vote,” says Michael Christ, a 20-year-old from Florida.
One sign of changing attitudes is the semi-inclusion in CPAC of gay-rights group GOProud. After years of being officially excluded, members of the group have officially been invited as guests. But they aren’t sponsors with a booth, nor are they hosting a panel. The agreement between the two parties is deliberately low-key.
Conversely, the National Organization for Marriage does have a booth at CPAC, and a number of attendees perused its materials on the first day of the conference, and helped themselves to the swag they offered. But the group isn’t involved with a traditional-marriage panel because, well, there isn’t one. And that has inspired an outcry from some conservative activists, upset that CPAC hasn’t dedicated sessions to abortion and marriage issues. Maybe the big backlash isn’t at CPAC because those who would organize it just aren’t there.
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