The Live Free or Die State stayed true to its name Wednesday, as an attempt to repeal same-sex marriage was rejected in the New Hampshire House of Representatives by a decisive margin of 211 to 116.
The victory meant that New Hampshire avoided the ignominy of becoming the first state since the Proposition 8 decision in California to revoke a civil right after it was instituted.
The legislative fight also brought to the forefront philosophical fissures within the Republican coalition, pitting libertarian, small-government conservatives against social conservatives.
Until the day of the vote, many Republican legislators opposing repeal believed that the vote would be close and could very well pass.
“I will be pleasantly surprised if the repeal is defeated, but I am not overly confident that it will,” Republican House member Tammy Simmons told me late last night. “I really do think it could be close.”
Certainly, advocates of repealing the freedom to marry were vocal in their belief that this legislative effort could signify the start of a new front in the culture war.
The National Organization for Marriage’s president, Brian Brown, predicted that social conservatives were “poised to start taking back territory … in places like New Hampshire. That will be the next battleground, and we are confident of victory.” The Family Research Council also was an active advocate of repeal.
But significantly, the forces that helped rally to protect the freedom to marry were also conservatives—just ones more consistent in their commitment to advancing individual freedom.
Given the massive majority Republicans enjoy in the 400-member House of Representatives, the only way to block this effort was through a cross-aisle coalition between libertarian Republicans and Democrats.
It proved successful.
“I always say my liberty ends where your liberty begins,” explained Tammy Simmons, who was first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010.
“And if you're a gay man wanting to marry another gay man, how does that impact me personally? You know, it doesn't … It's not about whether I'm Catholic or whether or not the party platform says this or whether or not the Democrats were the ones who brought it in the first place. All of that's really irrelevant.”
“I believe this is more of a generational than a partisan issue,” agreed 32-year- old Republican Representative Adam Schroadter, also elected in 2010. “I’ve been surprised at the degree to which the Tea Party seems to be split,” he added. “There is a conflict between the culturally conservative side and the libertarian side.”
The fault lines within the Republican coalition were stark and illuminating for some representatives. “The people that are supporting repeal want their personal religious views to be the law of the land. I hate to say it, but that's really what it's coming down to,” Representative Tammy Simmons added. “It's great to have faith and it's great to have religion, but that should dictate your life, not how somebody else lives their life.”
This decision to stand with libertarian principles rather than traditionalist impulses represents victory in the effort to modernize the Republican Party and expand its appeal rather than courting a backlash by reinforcing some of its negative stereotypes.
In particular, some legislators were concerned that an ideological over-reach by social conservatives could alienate independent voters—who make up a plurality of registered voters in the Granite State—in the next election. “I am concerned about the message it could sends to Independent voters,” said Schroadter. “I'm a Republican for small government, low taxes, and pro-business initiatives. This [marriage equality] is just one of those issues that government should probably stay away from.”
Attitudes toward same-sex marriage have changed dramatically in the past few years alone, with 59% of independents now supporting it, compared to 49% in 2010, according to Gallup. Significantly, only 7% of New Hampshire Republicans voted for the Freedom to Marry in 2009.
“What's happening here in New Hampshire is the amazing new direction that the Republican Party is taking at the state level,” said Tyler Deaton, a spokesperson for New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality PAC. “We’ve got so many Republican state representatives that are opposed to this repeal effort. And it's like the Republican Party's getting back to its roots—values of individual freedom and liberty and equality. It’s been an exciting thing to see. I think that New Hampshire is going to be a model for the national Republican Party to see that it is okay for the Republicans to be inclusive of gays and lesbians and to be in favor of equal rights. It's a new step forward for the party.”
It is healthy and heartening to see libertarians stand up to social conservatives on matters of principle and conscience, aiming for a philosophic consistency that reconnects the Republican Party to its roots as a force for expanding individual freedom.