Republicans’ Stealth Plan to Delete Gay Marriage from the Party’s 2016 Platform

Republicans are quietly strategizing to delete gay marriage from the party’s 2016 platform.

This image can only be used with the Alex Roarty story that originally ran in the 3/28/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Sen. Rob Portman speaks to the crowd gathered for the Ohio Republican Party Election Night Event on Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at the Renaissance Hotel in Columbus, Ohio.
The Washington Post/Getty Images
March 27, 2015, 12:11 a.m.

Late last sum­mer, with midterms con­sum­ing the at­ten­tion of the polit­ic­al class, a group of GOP act­iv­ists spent two days in Des Moines try­ing to con­vince their fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans that change was com­ing to their party. With eyes on 2016, they at­ten­ded the Iowa State Fair, talked with news­pa­per ed­it­or­i­al boards, and even ven­tured onto con­ser­vat­ive talk ra­dio. To cap it off, on the last even­ing, sup­port­ers gathered at 801 Cho­p­h­ouse, the up­scale wa­ter­ing hole of the city’s polit­ic­al elite, as if to an­nounce their move­ment had gone main­stream. That it couldn’t be dis­missed as fringe any longer.

Their is­sue, in a state where evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans re­main the heart of the GOP base, was sup­port for same-sex mar­riage.

The re­cep­tion was smal­ler than ex­pec­ted—just about 50 people came—and in­cluded a lineup of sup­port­ers already deeply in­volved in the GOP’s gay-mar­riage move­ment. Yet while it would have to be de­scribed as un­der­whelm­ing, the event non­ethe­less signaled move­ment. “Here you have a con­ser­vat­ive re­cep­tion for act­iv­ists to come in and talk mar­riage equal­ity in a cent­ral hub of polit­ic­al activ­ity,” says Jeff An­gelo, a former state sen­at­or who is now chair­man of Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans for Free­dom, a pro-gay-mar­riage group. “That’s not usu­al.”

(RE­LATED: 2016 Pres­id­en­tial Travel Track­er

In­deed, it’s not. Less than 10 years ago, the last Re­pub­lic­an who would go on to win the pres­id­ency traveled con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ica tout­ing a series of “one man, one wo­man” state con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments. Now, as more than a dozen men and wo­men plot paths to the GOP nom­in­a­tion, Amer­ica’s po­s­i­tion on same-sex mar­riage has shif­ted—dra­mat­ic­ally. Not only is it leg­al in most states for couples who are gay to marry, but most voters now sup­port their right to do so—in one poll, by a 3-to-2 ra­tio.

But the task that day in Iowa wasn’t to show Re­pub­lic­ans how much has changed in a dec­ade or to nudge them to­ward ac­cept­ance of those uni­ons. It was to force them to con­cede that go­ing neut­ral on gay mar­riage is crit­ic­al to win­ning the White House. It was, very spe­cific­ally, to per­suade them to take a series of tac­tic­al steps that would ul­ti­mately see lan­guage op­pos­ing gay mar­riage wiped from the Re­pub­lic­an Party plat­form in 2016.

This cam­paign, led by Jerri Ann Henry of the well-fun­ded Wash­ing­ton-based Young Con­ser­vat­ives for the Free­dom to Marry, is at work in Iowa, New Hamp­shire, South Car­o­lina, and Nevada, where ad­voc­ates and vo­lun­teers are lob­by­ing loc­al party lead­ers, ar­guing on con­ser­vat­ive talk ra­dio, and host­ing re­cep­tions like the one in Des Moines for polit­ic­ally act­ive voters.

The ar­gu­ment they are mak­ing to skep­tic­al Re­pub­lic­ans is blunt: If the GOP’s 2016 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee op­poses gay mar­riage, he or she will lose to Hil­lary Clin­ton.

It marks a sig­ni­fic­ant turn of events for a party whose uni­form op­pos­i­tion to gay mar­riage has been the norm. “We went from hav­ing this mono­lith­ic ap­pear­ance about the Re­pub­lic­an Party, ‘Oh, the Re­pub­lic­an Party is against mar­riage equal­ity,’ to, well, here are act­iv­ists who are meet­ing about mar­riage equal­ity,” An­gelo says. “That’s something new in the state.”

(RE­LATED: With Cam­paigns Loom­ing, GOP Splits on Same-Sex Mar­riage Be­ne­fits)

Per­haps more im­port­ant, An­gelo and Henry have be­gun draft­ing a list of po­ten­tial con­ven­tion del­eg­ates, who, with the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, will write the 2016 GOP plat­form, a pro­cess nor­mally dom­in­ated by con­ser­vat­ives. States have dif­fer­ent rules for se­lect­ing del­eg­ates, but Henry is press­ing ma­jor pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates to com­mit that 20 per­cent of their del­eg­ates will be un­der 40 years old, an age group in which polls show a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans—even Re­pub­lic­ans—sup­port same-sex mar­riage.

Part of this ef­fort in­cludes dir­ect out­reach to the pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates them­selves: Gregory T. An­gelo, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Log Cab­in Re­pub­lic­ans, said his group has met with sev­er­al cam­paigns to dis­cuss gay mar­riage. (Tellingly, though, he wouldn’t say which cam­paigns.)

Op­pon­ents of same-sex mar­riage know the as­sault is com­ing. Even foes such as the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil’s Tony Per­kins ac­know­ledge that Young Con­ser­vat­ives for the Free­dom to Marry and its al­lies this year are bet­ter or­gan­ized in this fight than his side. But it wouldn’t be the first time that pro-gay-mar­riage Re­pub­lic­ans have tried to soften or re­move the party’s plat­form po­s­i­tion, only to be met with even stronger lan­guage.

Henry says this time is dif­fer­ent, with a bet­ter-fun­ded and well-or­gan­ized ef­fort that has star­ted earli­er than ever be­fore. “It only sounds un­reas­on­able,” she says, “if you don’t un­der­stand the mo­mentum be­hind this is­sue already.”

The ur­gency Henry and oth­ers feel is rooted as much in polit­ics as in val­ues. The ar­gu­ment they are mak­ing to skep­tic­al Re­pub­lic­ans is blunt: If the GOP’s 2016 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee op­poses gay mar­riage, he or she will lose to Hil­lary Clin­ton.

That’s cer­tainly hy­per­bole: Voters are fo­cused on big-pic­ture con­cerns like the eco­nomy and for­eign policy. But against the back­drop of rap­idly shift­ing pub­lic opin­ion, it’s in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to make the case that op­pos­i­tion to gay mar­riage will at some point be any­thing but a polit­ic­al loser for the GOP. An NBC News”Š/”ŠWall Street Journ­al poll this month found a re­cord high 59 per­cent of re­spond­ents sup­port same-sex mar­riage, and it’s just one of many re­cent sur­veys that show pub­lic sup­port sit­ting com­fort­ably over 50 per­cent.

To ad­voc­ates, the is­sue is es­pe­cially sa­li­ent among young­er voters who might oth­er­wise lean Re­pub­lic­an but vote Demo­crat­ic be­cause of the GOP’s in­transigence on so­cial is­sues. “There will be Re­pub­lic­an voters who trust the party on eco­nom­ics, who trust the party on na­tion­al de­fense, but they might have a gay broth­er or a les­bi­an daugh­ter, and even though they agree with the Re­pub­lic­an Party on oth­er is­sues, that is a deal-break­er,” says Tyler Deaton, seni­or ad­viser to the pro-gay-mar­riage Amer­ic­an Unity Fund, an in­flu­en­tial or­gan­iz­a­tion backed by Re­pub­lic­an hedge-fund bil­lion­aire Paul Sing­er. “And that’s a deal-break­er for more Amer­ic­an voters than ever be­fore.”

As im­port­ant as the gen­er­al-elec­tion ar­gu­ment might be, con­vin­cing Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers that there is enough sup­port with­in the party to pro­tect them from the po­ten­tial back­lash from the so­cial con­ser­vat­ives who typ­ic­ally dom­in­ate the primary sea­son is a trick­i­er task. Here again, ad­voc­ates try to rely on data: Sup­port for gay mar­riage has grown by 11 per­cent­age points among Re­pub­lic­ans since 2011, ac­cord­ing to Alex Lun­dry, a poll­ster for Pro­ject Right Side, a group cre­ated by one of the most in­flu­en­tial, openly gay men in the party, former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ken Mehl­man. “The Re­pub­lic­an Party is fast ap­proach­ing a ma­jor­ity on sup­port of gay mar­riage,” Lun­dry says. “I want to be clear: We’re not at that yet. But we’re get­ting there.”

Among Re­pub­lic­an ad­voc­ates, there’s wide­spread be­lief that most elec­ted of­fi­cials and polit­ic­al lead­ers are ready to move on, con­vinced that is­sues like the debt and na­tion­al de­fense are more im­port­ant than wheth­er gay men and wo­men can marry. But they be­lieve those lead­ers will keep their views private, wor­ried about ant­ag­on­iz­ing a pock­et of so­cial con­ser­vat­ives who strongly op­pose gay mar­riage.

Part of Young Con­ser­vat­ives for the Free­dom to Marry’s ef­fort aims to dis­miss that con­cern by ar­guing that just a few GOP of­fi­cials’ pub­lic back­ing can pave the way for more to fol­low. “Party lead­ers who had al­ways, be­hind the scenes, giv­en a wink and nod are now will­ing to go on re­cord,” says Chris­ti­an Berle, former deputy ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Log Cab­in Re­pub­lic­ans, point­ing to two Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors—Rob Port­man and Mark Kirk—who now openly sup­port gay mar­riage.

That’s a bullish as­sess­ment, for sure. Dig deep­er in­to the polling and what’s clear to Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives on the fence about sup­port­ing gay mar­riage is that sen­ti­ment among con­ser­vat­ive voters in con­ser­vat­ive states hasn’t shif­ted. A New York Times sur­vey last year found that 70 per­cent of con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans said it should not be leg­al for same-sex couples to marry.

And while the im­port­ance of so­cial is­sues has dimmed with­in the GOP, evan­gel­ic­als still con­sti­tute a huge bloc of its voters with enorm­ous in­flu­ence over the party’s agenda. Tony Per­kins and oth­er re­li­gious lead­ers are already warn­ing that if the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee drops its op­pos­i­tion, it will ali­en­ate core sup­port­ers. “Do they want to take the risk of of­fend­ing what was 25 per­cent of their vote in the last gen­er­al elec­tion by en­ga­ging in this? I don’t think they do,” says Per­kins. “I think it’s too risky for the RNC and nom­in­ee to en­gage in this.”

Per­kins seems con­fid­ent the gay-mar­riage ef­fort will fail, and he has the ear of enough de­cision-makers to make his op­pos­i­tion well known. He was a del­eg­ate to the 2012 GOP con­ven­tion, and while Per­kins says he’s not sure he will take on that task again in 2016, a de­voted so­cially con­ser­vat­ive ally is sure to play a cent­ral role in draft­ing plat­form lan­guage.

That’s what makes Henry’s job so dif­fi­cult. Try as ad­voc­ates might to stock the con­ven­tion’s del­eg­ates with like-minded sup­port­ers, those spots still usu­ally go to con­ser­vat­ives much less will­ing than the av­er­age Re­pub­lic­an to ap­prove of, or at least stay si­lent on, gay mar­riage. “Even if the nom­in­ee wants to take it out, and I doubt he will, it would be a 50”Š/”Š50 pro­pos­i­tion, at best,” says Steven Duf­field, who served as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the GOP plat­form in 2008.

Duf­field sug­gests the best shot for chan­ging the plat­form would be to en­sure that a well-known, per­suas­ive spokes­man like Mehl­man be­comes a del­eg­ate. (Mehl­man wouldn’t com­ment for this story.)

Ad­voc­ates aren’t count­ing on a high-pro­file lead­er to swoop in and change minds, though. They think the only route to re­mov­ing op­pos­i­tion to gay mar­riage from the plat­form is to identi­fy Re­pub­lic­ans who are will­ing to con­cede that a shift on this is­sue is ne­ces­sary to re­take the White House. They know they won’t con­vince every­one, but they also know they don’t have to.

“I cer­tainly don’t think Steve King is go­ing to wake up one night and say, ‘Well I gotta love the gays be­cause I read a poll,‘“Š” Berle says. “But I think a lot of people un­der­stand what the primary is­sue is to Amer­ic­ans—con­cerns about the eco­nomy, for­eign policy is­sues—and nobody is really get­ting kept up at night that the gay couple down street are wear­ing wed­ding bands.”

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