Has the Conservative Base Given Up on Gay Marriage?

What the scant mention of gay marriage at CPAC means.

Pro-traditional marriage supporters protest next to gay marriage supporters in front of the U.S. Federal Courthouse March 3, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
March 7, 2014, 3:05 a.m.

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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