While Barack Obama’s dramatic embrace of same-sex marriage Wednesday opened the floodgates of fundraising and enthusiasm for his re-election campaign, it appears to present new challenges for Mitt Romney. Despite suggestions that the president’s new position would bring out impassioned foes of gay marriage, it is supporters who so far have been most energized by the president’s move.
“I hope the issue, as tender and sensitive as the marriage issue is, is not a source of fundraising for either of us,” Romney told Fox News’ Neal Cavuto Thursday when asked about Obama’s recent fundraising numbers and whether he was experiencing a boost of his own. Which is basically a way of acknowledging that social conservatives and Mormon donors have known for months who their horse is in this race, and Romney would rather have kept the issue out of the news. Instead, he faces a delicate balancing act, stuck between socially liberal Republican donors on Wall Street and hardliners on the religious right who can bring out votes but don’t tend to fill campaign coffers.
Within 90 minutes of ABC airing Obama’s hastily scheduled interview his campaign had raked in $1 million in contributions. Obama flies Thursday night to Hollywood for a fundraiser hosted by actor George Clooney that is expected to bring in as much as $15 million. And that’s just the start, say Democrats close to the party’s powerful gay donor base.
“You’re going to see a significant uptick in donations for the president,” said Brian Ellner, Human Rights Campaign’s senior strategist for the successful push to pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in New York last year. “I’ve been contacted by many, many people in the last 24 hours, and they are opening up their wallets in significant ways.”
He cited a donor who had been holding back from a $5,000 donation, frustrated at Obama’s awkward waffling on the issue. “I love Obama!” the donor wrote Ellner after learning of Obama’s comments. “Donating now, and I applied to help with the campaign.”
“The Republican Party, by and large, has had a pretty muted response,” said John Weaver, the seasoned Republican strategist who led John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and also helmed former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s effort this time around. “Anything that keeps the discussion away from the economy is not good for Mitt Romney.”
“Among gay Republicans I could see some real tension, particularly if the campaign doesn’t handle it very well,” he added.
Some of the financiers who lent their checkbooks to the New York fight had seen a “kindred corporate spirit” in Romney, as one insider put it, and consider him a moderate compared to most national Republicans. But pressed on the issue Wednesday, Romney reiterated his opposition not just to same-sex marriage but even to civil unions.
“It’s definitely going to increase tension that was already there,” said Jennifer Cunningham, the strategist with close ties to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo who was tapped by a coalition of gay rights groups to guide the law through the state legislature. “Some of these donors were very unhappy with the tenor of the debate on these social issues during the Republican primary.”
While competing for the party’s nod with Rick Santorum, who as a U.S. senator often compared gay marriage to bestiality, Romney bragged in a speech last winter about how, after the Massachusetts State Supreme Court legalized gay marriage there in 2003, he invoked an early 20th century law intended to prevent out-of-state couples from tying the knot in the Bay State.
“We successfully prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage,” Romney said to raucous applause.
While Obama’s new position could help the Mormon lock up the vote of evangelicals skeptical of his religious faith, it could actually depress his fundraising, political players said.
“Whether people will publicly jump ship is less important than whether they sit on their hands, because that [socially liberal Wall Street community] is a huge vital source of funding not just for the campaign but also some of the Super PACs,” Cunningham said.
Paul Singer, whose hedge fund Elliot Management had $19.2 billion in assets last year, has donated at least $1 million to Restore Our Future, the Super PAC that helped Romney overwhelm his primary rivals on the television airwaves.
Singer, whose son is gay and who played a vital role last year in convincing Republican state legislators he would protect them from a backlash against the New York law, is unlikely to back Obama, who has alienated financial executives with occasional outbursts of populist rhetoric and by backing the 2010 Dodd-Frank reform law. But there is a real risk of an enthusiasm gap developing between the two nominees in the wake of the president’s comments.
Although some senior Democratic strategists have been urging caution on the marriage issue, wary of re-igniting the culture wars and determined to fight this campaign on the more comfortable political terrain of wealth and income inequality, others think the president’s new stance was the fastest and most certain way to regain some of the magic of his historic campaign four years ago.
“I think it’s really going to reengage a whole segment of the electorate that up until now hasn’t been where they were in 2008,” said Cunningham. “Progressives and young people are going to feel very good about this.”