Family First

Gay Brawl at CPAC Over Sen. Rob Portman’s Marriage Flip

The conservative confab is atwitter over a Republican senator’s reversal on same-sex marriage. Caitlin Dickson talks to shocked attendees.

03.15.13 6:38 PM ET

A Republican senator who was thisclose to joining Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket last year dropped a bomb this morning by announcing he supports gay marriage—and got a mostly frosty reception from the fired-up conservatives gathered outside of D.C. for the annual CPAC convention.

Sen. Rob Portman has “come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime committed to love…the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married,” he wrote in The Columbus Dispatch, adding that his own gay son had spurred the change of heart.

Portman won some quick praise in the press for “taking the lead” on the contentious issue, but the crowd here at CPAC, for the most part, didn’t react well to the dramatic reversal.

“I think this will absolutely hurt him with the grassroots,” said Thomas Peters, communications director for the National Organization for Marriage, a non-profit that advocates for traditional marriage, in front of the group’s booth. He said his organization is one of the only ones at the conference specifically focused on marriage, though he agreed there is no shortage of gay-marriage opponents in the crowd.

“There is a lot of media attention when a Republican flips, but what they ignore is that his grassroots is slipping out the back door while he’s talking to the cameras,” Peters added, pointing to a recent Associated Press article about Republican politicians who’ve lost elections after coming out in favor of gay marriage to illustrate his argument.

Portman, who had been on the shortlist to be presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate and supported the Defense of Marriage Act during his 14-year service in the House of Representatives, was clear in his op-ed that his reversal stemmed from his personal relationship with his wife and children. “I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I’ve had for over 26 years,” he wrote. “My son came to Jane, my wife, and I, told us that he was gay, and that it was not a choice, and that’s just part of who he is, and that’s who he’d been for as long as he could remember.”

But Peters dismissed Portman’s reasoning. “It is a false equation to say that just because you know a gay person you have to be in favor of redefining marriage for everyone,” he said. “One gentleman speaking at our March for Marriage, Bobby Lopez, was raised by his lesbian mother and her partner. He says that they were good parents, he loves his mom, but they didn’t let him have a dad.”

The National Organization for Marriage is hosting a March for Marriage in Washington which deliberately coincides with the day the Supreme Court is set to start hearing arguments in favor of upholding Proposition 8, California’s gay marriage ban, and the Defense of Marriage Act.

To be sure, not everyone at CPAC is against same-sex marriage. Just yesterday, at a rogue panel session, conservative pundits such as National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg and Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin advocated an end to anti-gay rhetoric. Liz Mair, a conservative political strategist who spoke on the panel, said Portman’s announcement shows that “support for the freedom to marry is a lot broader and deeper within the GOP than many people realize.”

Still, that support rarely breaks through the surface—there’s a reason that panel was unauthorized. Tradition, Family and Property, another group at at CPAC, is also a sponsor of the upcoming March for Marriage. As of Friday afternoon, the group’s spokesman, Michael Drake, had not yet heard about Portman’s announcement, but once learning of it, agreed with Peters.

“It’s bad for the country,” Drake said. “I don’t think it brings any benefits. It alienates people who really believe in true marriage. It’s pushing away conservatives.” He suggested that Portman, as the father of a gay man, might want to talk to “ex-homosexuals,” citing the organization PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays) as an excellent resource.

Moreover, he insisted, opening up the definition of marriage is simply asking for trouble. “If my relative is a bank robber, should I change my views on bank robbery?” he asked. “If we redefine honesty to include bank robbery, that’s the equivalent of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Thomas Peters as the communications director for Focus on the Family. He is communications director for the National Organization for Marriage.