CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The most powerful Republican in South Carolina sent a subtle pro-marriage equality message Tuesday night, and Republicans trying to shift their party’s stance on that issue said Wednesday it was received loud and clear.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave the Republican Party’s official response to President Obama’s final State of the Union speech, and her speech mostly drew attention for its just-barely-veiled criticism of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But those on the far-right may have missed the most quietly consequential part of Haley’s speech. Towards the end of the address, the governor tacitly suggested the Republican Party would change its course on same-sex marriage if it won the White House.
“We would respect differences in modern families,” she said, “but we would also insist on respect for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our democracy.”
On its face, that sentence may sound a little milquetoast—what politician would suggest her party wouldn’t respect families? But conservative operatives pushing for the party to shift its stance on marriage see the comment as a big win. That’s because her specific phrasing is lifted almost verbatim from one group’s proposed rewording of the Republican Party platform.
The effort is called Platform Reform, and it’s a project of the American Unity Fund, which is backed in part by Republican hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, a staunch advocate of same-sex marriage who played an outsize role in getting the New York legislature to legalize back in 2011. The platform-reforming campaign aims to make the Republican Party neutral on the issue of same-sex marriage. Currently, the platform explicitly opposes it.
“[W]e believe that marriage, the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard, a goal to stand for, encourage, and promote through laws governing marriage,” the platform reads.
The Platform Reform effort wants that language to say this:
“[W]e encourage and welcome a thoughtful conversation among Republicans about the meaning and importance of marriage, and commit our Party to respect for all families and fairness and freedom for all Americans.”
Platform Reform operatives said they didn’t think Haley’s word choice was a coincidence.
“I think it’s fantastic, because that’s the exact sort of thing that Republican ideals point towards, strong families, and that’s why we think our platform should be reformed,” said Jerri Ann Henry, the Platform Reform campaign manager. “So I think it’s fantastic that she included that as a top priority in her response.”
Henry added that her group has passed its materials to Haley’s office.
“Pretty much everybody who’s ever been elected with an R by their name has heard from us,” she said.
And Henry said she’s optimistic about their odds.
“It’s gonna happen,” she said.
The rationale is this: RNC members are tired of losing, and they don’t want to lose because of a ride-or-die commitment to an issue that the Supreme Court has decided is done.
Haley’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on her stance about the party platform.
At the Republican National Committee’s Winter Meeting in Charleston, the campaign handed out color printouts of Haley’s line about respecting modern families. They also lobbied members of the RNC to back the effort to change the platform’s language.
And people listened.
Kirsten Hughes, the Massachusetts Republican Party chairman, said the group had reached out to her and she was open to their pitch.
“I know it’s going to be something that we’re talking about,” she said. “Sure, I’m open to it.”
Matt Moore, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he feels differently.
“We are a conservative party that believes in the conservative definition of marriage,” he said. “But we are interested in growing the party.
“I want the platform to remain for traditional marriage,” he added. “But for those who don’t, we want them in the party as well.”
That said, South Carolina might be one of the least hospitable states for this effort. A poll (PDF) that American Unity Fund commissioned last summer—from TargetPoint Consulting, surveying 2,000 registered voters over a week in June—showed that South Carolina Republican primary voters are even more opposed to same-sex marriage than their peers in Iowa.
That poll showed that 47 percent of Iowa Republican likely-voters favored same-sex marriage, and 22 percent supported it more over the past five years. In South Carolina, however, just 39 percent of likely Republican primary voters backed same-sex marriage rights, and only 16 percent became more supportive of it over the past five years.
Cindy Costa, the RNC committeewoman from South Carolina, expressed skepticism about the political promise of platform-neutralization efforts.
“I would say, let’s not do it,” she said. “It’s not necessary. I think it would hurt our base.”
And Cyndi Mosteller, who formerly chaired the Charleston County Republican Party, said she shares that view.
“The same principles that led us to hold to traditional marriage have not diminished in our heart,” she said.
And Al Phillips, a conservative evangelical leader who is director of missions for the Greenville Baptist Association, said changing the party’s stance on marriage wouldn’t likely play well in the Palmetto State.
“It’s kind of the buckle of the Bible Belt, especially in the upstate,” he said. “And I think that if you’ve got people who take the Bible seriously, as evangelicals do by definition, then it would have a huge impact on their view of issues like marriage.”
He added that taking out support for marriage would dampen evangelical voters’ enthusiasm.
“Evangelical voters are going to near-unanimously be strong supporters of the traditional family, not the modern family,” he added.
Haley seems to be betting that modern families and evangelical Republicans can make peace. And it’s not a sure bet, one way or the other.Disclosure: The spouse of this website’s editor-in-chief works for the American Unity Fund.