Inside the offices of Republican gay-rights groups, a strategy is forming to convince party leaders to strip opposition to gay marriage from the GOP platform.
The target, operatives say, is to see party leaders drop their support for a gay-marriage ban in time for the Republican National Convention in summer 2016.
It’s a long shot, but Republican gay-rights lobbyists think they can build on the momentum provided by courts nationwide and the belief that, philosophically, the GOP’s social conservatives are fighting a battle that puts them well out of step with the majority of the country, and that could demographically doom national aspirations.
“The ground has never been more inviting and welcoming to someone changing their position on the issue,” said Marc Solomon, a former Republican Hill staffer, now with Freedom to Marry. “Where the polling is on the issue, it shows that we have a real legitimate chance at victory in 2016.”
A group called Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry is part of the effort to remove the traditional-marriage plank from the GOP platform at the Cleveland convention. Already, the group has met with state and county party officials in New Hampshire, and they’re planning trips to Iowa in August and to South Carolina and Nevada in September.
“The convention is in two years, and we’re exceptionally organized,” said Tyler Deaton, the group’s campaign manager.
In Washington, Republican gay-rights lobbyists and campaign strategists are urging supportive lawmakers to talk more about LGBT issues with their constituents, and coaching them on how to do it. Poll testing has shown, for example, that talking about adoption by gay couples is received poorly. Indeed, it polls least well of all gay-rights issues.
“So, instead, talk about visiting your partner in the hospital or controlling their remains after they die. Those are the things people say, ‘Whoa, they can’t do that?’ ” said a Republican lobbyist who meets with members on gay-rights issues regularly.
Similarly, rather than talking about gay marriage, strategists are guiding Republicans to talk about the freedom to marry, and they cast the question in familiar conservative terms about the government’s role in people’s private lives.
“Use freedom language, why it’s important for families, why it’s inappropriate for the government to treat people differently and treating gay people as taxpayers,” said one GOP gay-rights lobbyist.
And beyond changes to the rhetorical approach, the LGBT-rights community is bringing cash to the effort.
The American Unity PAC, the sister group to the 501(c)(4) American Unity Fund, has spent almost $700,000 this cycle to elect Republicans who back gay rights, compared with the nearly $120,000 traditional-marriage groups like Family Research Council have doled out, and their meetings with members went from three a week last year to five per week this year.
Even if the LGBT community’s 2016 goal isn’t met, gay-rights supporters in Washington think it’s only a matter of time before opposing equal rights for gay Americans becomes politically untenable.
“What’s happening is this has changed over time,” said Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who’s retiring this year. “I do think over time people’s feelings about it have changed. The polling shows that, so I think over time whether you’re Republican or Democrat it probably will be viewed differently.”
That shift forms the backbone of supporters’ pitch to their fellow Republicans. The change is stark and has been swift. In 2014, 78 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds supported gay marriage, according to a recent Gallup Poll. That’s up 8 points from 2013 and up 37 points from 1996.
“I would say in America’s suburbs this is quite often the No. 1 test for younger voters to see how tolerant you are,” said Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who faces reelection in 2016 and who supports gay marriage.
The push to move Republican opinion comes not only as polling shows shifts but also as more and more courts have validated gay marriage, with 19 states permitting it now, and after the Supreme Court ruled against a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.
Still, Republican lawmakers are not rushing publicly to change their position. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine recently announced her support for gay marriage, bringing the number of Republican supporters in the Senate to a grand total of four, including Kirk and Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio.
Some other Republicans are keeping silent on the issue. It’s a strategic silence, say GOP supporters. “In the past you might have heard quite a bit about their opposition,” said Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. “But now they’re understanding it’s a losing issue. They’re pointing to pocketbook issues—what you don’t see can be just as important as what you do see.”
Indeed, as courts continue to rule, and with Utah recently petitioning the Supreme Court to take up its case, the Republican playbook on the issue has gone from active opposition to gay marriage to passive support.
“I believe in traditional marriage,” said Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. “However, I think that is an issue that should be decided by the states. My state has decided this issue, and I respect that decision.”
Not that the social conservatives of the party are totally giving up. The Family Research Council is working with conservative Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, who support legislation to undo the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. The council has also sponsored polling that shows 82 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents favor the traditional definition of marriage.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described which group has spent $700,000 to support pro-gay-rights candidates. It was American Unity PAC.