Gay Marriage

03.26.13

Republicans Play Catch-Up on Gay Marriage

With public opinion shifting at ‘breathtaking’ speed, Republican politicians are finding themselves on the wrong side of gay marriage—but they must also keep their conservative donors happy, reports Eleanor Clift.

On no other public policy issue have attitudes have changed as rapidly as on gay marriage, and Karl Rove, the man George W. Bush dubbed “the architect” of his reelection, epitomizes the shift in the Republican Party. Asked on ABC’s This Week if he could “imagine” a Republican presidential candidate unequivocally backing gay marriage, Rove replied, “I could.”

This is the same Karl Rove who in 2004 helped push a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and worked to put similar bans on the ballot in swing states such as Ohio to generate conservative turnout. Once a wedge issue that worked to the advantage of the GOP, gay marriage is now seen as benefiting the Democratic Party.

“This issue has been lost. It’s about time Republicans get over it,” says Ron Haskins, a former Bush White House official who co-directs the Center for Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. “Having hung out with Republicans for many years and knowing Republicans who either themselves were gay or had sons or daughters who were gay, Republicans always were very queasy about this issue,” he says. “Republicans think the less said, the better, but there’s a certain amount of relief. It’s hard to be a consistent conservative and be opposed to gay marriage.”

A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that a slim majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents under the age of 50 support gay marriage. When the Supreme Court hears the challenge Tuesday to overturn Prop 8 in California, a lesbian cousin of Chief Justice John Roberts will be in the audience. Sean Trende, an analyst with Real Clear Politics, says that on most public policy issues he can see both sides, but on gay marriage, even from a conservative perspective, he finds no good arguments against it.

Still, he says Rove may be a bit optimistic when he envisions the Republican nominee endorsing gay marriage in 2016. “You might see someone go for civil unions,” says Trende, but a full-bore endorsement of gay marriage may have to wait until 2020, when a majority of Republicans under the age of 60 might be taking a more progressive stance. “Or the whole thing could be taken off the table by the Supreme Court,” he adds.

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Marriage equality supporters take part in a march and rally ahead of U.S. Supreme Court arguments on legalizing same-sex marriage in New York on March 24, 2013. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty)

Republican pollster Whit Ayres notes that in 30 years of polling, he’s never seen anything even close to the electorate’s fast-changing views toward gay marriage. He calls it “breathtaking” and won’t predict what might happen in 2016, three years from now. But looking back three years to 2010, he says, “It’s hard to imagine a Republican senator from a swing state coming out for gay marriage,” yet that’s what Ohio Sen. Rob Portman just did, winning wide praise.

Haskins cautions that Republicans could still pay a price with a conservative electorate in primary elections. He cites the experience of David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values and an intellectual leader in the conservative movement. Nine months ago, Blankenhorn moved from outspoken opposition to public support for legalizing same-sex marriage. “He lost a lot of donors; he was clobbered by conservative funders,” says Haskins. “A fair number of Republicans, including Rob Portman, could wind up being Blankenhorned, using it as a verb,” he says. “We’ll always have die-hards, and there are very good and decent people who in their soul are repelled by the idea of gay marriage.”

Looking back to 2010, he says, “It’s hard to imagine a Republican senator from a swing state coming out for gay marriage,” yet that’s what Rob Portman just did.

Portman did wait until after he was safely reelected to a six-year term in the Senate before announcing that he supports gay marriage based on the personal experience of learning one of his sons is gay. Portman was a co-sponsor of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, whose constitutionality will be argued in a Supreme Court hearing Wednesday.

Will Portman, now a junior at Yale, writes in the Yale Daily News that he is “psyched” he and his father are on the same page. He explains that his father’s delay in going public had more to do with his own privacy issues and not wanting his life defined by his sexual orientation than any reelection concerns. He says his father told the Romney campaign that his son is gay and that the family would be open about it if he were chosen as vice president.

Another Republican vice president, Dick Cheney, had a similar family story with a gay daughter, and it didn’t hurt him. “The writing has been on the wall since the mid-2000s,” says Trende. But that doesn’t mean the court will rule unequivocally for marriage equality. “The dam that seems to be breaking on gay marriage makes it less likely for the court to step out” and issue a broad federal ruling in the Prop 8 case, says Trende. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the divided court, is “very strong on gay rights but might want to let things percolate out through the political process,” thus avoiding the backlash generated by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision where the court got ahead of states deciding for themselves. With public opinion moving so fast on gay marriage, the court—like the Republican Party—could be relegated to playing catch-up.