In the long sweep of LGBT equality, it could have stood as a seminal moment.
Rob Portman, the well-respected Ohio senator and former Bush administration official, and someone well within the mainstream of the GOP establishment, could have been the first serious Republican presidential candidate to be an avowed supporter of same-sex marriage. He was not likely to win—Portman’s charisma deficit has made him a perennial also-ran in the vice-presidential sweepstakes—but he probably would have done well enough to prove that being pro-same-sex marriage was not disqualifying for a Republican candidate.
As it stands, candidates do not have much of an incentive to come out in favor of same-sex marriage. Those most likely to do so, like Chris Christie or Rand Paul, already are facing suspicion from conservatives, and so are seeking to show their hard-right bonafides in the run-up to a campaign. But once Portman made room on the debate stage for an idea that has broad acceptance seemingly everywhere but among GOP primary voters, it is easy to imagine that others would have jumped on board. It’s already happened in the Senate, after Portman, citing his college-age son who had recently come out as gay, wrote in a Columbus Dispatch op-ed in 2013: “I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married.” Seemingly before the ink was dry, three other Republican senators—Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—declared their support, as well.
But on Monday Portman said that he would not run for president, choosing to seek reelection in Ohio. Which prompts the question: In a GOP field minus Portman, what role will same-sex marriage play? Presidential primaries have a way of bringing out issues that later become policy or law. In 2008, trying to get to the left of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama proposed withdrawing from the war in Iraq. In 1968, Richard Nixon touted his plan to end the war in Vietnam in the face of a challenge from the anti-war George Romney.
Without any diversity of opinion, candidates tend to bunch together as much as possible. In 2012, without any countervailing force to his left, Mitt Romney was forced to advocate for the “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants, describe himself as “severely conservative,” and along with the rest of the field raise his hand at a Fox News debate when asked whether he would not raise taxes for even 10 times the amount of spending reductions.
Some polls show that as many as 59 percent of Americans favor full marriage equality, a figure that rises as the age of those polled goes down, with up to 81 percent of millennials supporting the legalization of gay marriage. But in a GOP presidential primary, “If someone takes that position, it raises trust concerns about their other core beliefs,” said Gary Marx, a Republican strategist and former head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “The old adage was that if you couldn’t trust somebody to do what they said they were going to do on taxes, how could you trust them to be pro-life? You are looking for a consistent conservative across the board when you are considering candidates in a presidential primary.”
In the 2012 GOP presidential primary, same-sex marriage did not come up much, in part because the candidates were all in agreement, not only with each other but with President Obama, who did not announce his own evolution on the issue until the Republican contest was all but settled. This time around, some social conservative strategists think the issues could be muted again, since the pressing questions on same-sex marriage reside mostly with the courts. In the first in the nation primary state of New Hampshire, 54 percent of Republicans favor allowing gays and lesbians to have legal civil marriage. In the first in the West caucus state of Nevada, the state Republican Party has dropped opposition to same-sex marriage as part of its platform.
But the presence of evangelical primary voters, especially in Iowa and South Carolina among the early states, means that some candidates will press their advantage.
“You could easily see a situation where a Rick Santorum or a Mike Huckabee are pressing this issue, and you hope that the rest of the field just leaves it to them,” said one pro-same-sex marriage GOP strategist.
“Traditionally, the Republican Party supports traditional marriage,” said Alice Stewart, a GOP strategist allied with Huckabee. “If Governor Huckabee were to enter the race, he has supported traditional marriage. He always has and he always will.”
Evan Wolfson, the president of Freedom to Marry, one of the nation’s foremost same sex marriage advocacy groups, said that even without Portman in the race, it is too early to tell if the GOP field will be without a marriage equality candidate, considering how fast public opinion—and with it, public officials—are moving on the matter.
“2016 is still a long time away,” he said. “Who knows what will happen?”
Wolfson pointed to a number of Republican governors who already at the very least have chosen not to fight the issue out in their states where courts or the legislature acted, including Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who once county clerks began issuing marriage licenses said, “For us, it’s over.”
Christie, Walker, and Paul have all argued that the marriage issue is one better left to the states. Their position is identical to the one held by Hillary Clinton, a fact that delights Gregory T. Angelo, the head of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights GOP group.
“Hillary Clinton has a position on marriage that is to the right of everyone else in her party,” he said. “Part of me cannot wait to see her twist herself into contortions explaining why her position is different from her party’s platform.”
In other words, expect the marriage matter to be a bipartisan affair.
“That is a fact we are certainly going to be reminding Democrats about,” Angelo said.