The GOP’s Gay-Rights Reboot

Growing public acceptance of same-sex marriage has spurred an effort to change the Republican Party’s platform.

RICHMOND, VA - MAY 13: A same-sex marriage supporter wears a rainbow cape behind 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a court hearing May 13, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. Three judges from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from both sides of the case that seeks to determine whether Virginia's same sex marriage ban is constitutional. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
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Michael Catalin
July 13, 2014, 4:35 p.m.

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.



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