The GOP's Uncomfortable Debate Over Gay Marriage

Beth Reinhard
February 25, 2013

As Republicans rebound from the 2012 election and plot their future, an uncomfortable debate over gay rights is taking place.

Some party leaders are promoting a more inclusive approach to help the GOP modernize its image and reach across the generational divide. Polls show a narrow majority of Americans--and an overwhelming number of young people--think same-sex couples should have the right to marry. “The marketplace of ideas will render us irrelevant, and soon, if we are not honest about our time and place in history,” wrote former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman last week in declaring his support for gay marriage.

Yet even as Republicans are increasingly willing to consider more-moderate immigration policies to bridge the gap with the Hispanic community, accepting same-sex marriage is more complicated. Gay Republican groups say they are not welcome at next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the largest gathering of conservative activists in the country. A coalition of gay activists had to pull footage of former first lady Laura Bush from an advertising campaign last week featuring prominent Republicans after she complained. When a leading GOP advocate of immigration reform, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, was asked recently about President Obama’s proposal to allow same-sex partners to be eligible for green cards, he sarcastically quipped, “Why don't we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out?”

The marriage debate is expected to reach fever pitch next month when the Supreme Court hears opening arguments in challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 outlawing gay marriage. The massive publicity surrounding these court cases will make it difficult for Republican politicians who want to keep their distance from the debate while offering others a chance to proclaim the party's support for traditional marriage.

“So far, there’s definitely been an absence of this issue being pushed in the media; there’s no antigay marriage drumbeat from the Republican Party,” said Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. “We’ll see what that leads to when there is all the chatter and press and advocacy around the Supreme Court decisions. The party is not in lockstep on this.”

National Journal’s Political Insiders survey last month found that nearly half of Republicans think the topic should be avoided. Nearly three out of 10 said they support same-sex marriage, while only 11 percent are opposed. That’s a big departure from 2009, when half of the Republican Insiders said the party should oppose gay marriage.

House Republicans took on DOMA’s defense in 2011 after the Obama administration said it was unconstitutional, and they recently increased their legal budget to $3 million. To the amused bewilderment of some gay activists, one of the key Republican arguments is that that gay Americans are so powerful that they don’t need special protections. “Gays and lesbians are one of the most influential, best-connected, best-funded, and best-organized interest groups in modern politics, and have attained more legislative victories, political power, and popular favor in less time than virtually any other group in American history,”  says the legal brief quietly filed with the Supreme Court.

“Just a few years ago they would have held a news conference at high noon to announce it,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign. “We definitely see a concerted effort to tamp down the rhetoric.”

In Minnesota, GOP legislative leaders went so far to assure members of their caucus that they would not face reprisals if they supported a gay-marriage bill, and a Republican state senator is preparing to sponsor the legislation. Similar proposals have attracted bipartisan support in Wyoming and Rhode Island. In Iowa and Indiana, Republican bills to ban gay marriage have been put on the backburner.

None other than the chairman of the Illinois GOP threw his support behind a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, arguing that "giving gay and lesbian couples the freedom to get married honors the best conservative principles.”  

But when the bill cleared the state Senate on Valentine’s Day, only one Republican voted with the majority. The party chairman, Pat Brady, is fending off calls for his ouster, and more than 3,000 people rallied against the law at the state Capitol last week.

Gay marriage opponents warn of consequences if Republicans retreat from championing traditional marriage.

 “I don’t think that’s a constructive attitude to take because Republican officials cannot win without social conservatives,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. “They are the core base of the Republican Party and the most active volunteers, and it would make no sense to turn their backs on them.”

Opponents of gay marriage are planning a “March for Marriage” in Washington, D.C., on March 26. The speaker’s lineup has not yet been released. “The fight for marriage is absolutely not over. It’s going strong,” said Thomas Peters, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage. “The idea that there’s a consensus on overthrowing marriage is absurd.”

Still, the momentum appears to be on the side of gay right supporters, who won four ballot initiatives in 2012 and are eying marriage equality laws in Illinois, Rhode Island, Delaware and Hawaii. Efforts to repeal gay marriage bans are underway in Oregon, New Jersey and Ohio. Barack Obama became the first president to invoke gay rights in an inaugural speech last month.

In an effort to capitalize on these headwinds, a collecting of gay rights groups called the Respect for Marriage Coalition is running $1 million in television and print ads, though it had to replace the one with Laura Bush with a spot featuring a Republican Marine. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Colin Powell are also included in the campaign. “We really want to show there’s a majority of Americans behind gay marriage and it’s a bi-partisan majority,” said Evan Wolfson, the president of Freedom to Marry.

Still, gay Republicans feel excluded from most conservative corners, including the high-profile CPAC conference last month that will showcase likely presidential contenders and other rising stars in the party. Angelo said the Log Cabin Republicans have asked to participate in the past but didn’t this year because it prefers to “choose its battles.” Another gay group, GOProud, was barred from last year’s event after some social conservatives boycotted.

“If people are concerned about the future of the conservative movement, they know we need to broaden our appeal,” said the group’s executive director Jimmy LaSalvia.  “They need to deal with the political reality of this issue, and beating the drum against gay marriage is a political loser.”