Republicans Are Driving the Momentum for Gay Marriage

From politicians and donors to the party rank and file, a change of heart in the GOP is a major factor in the issue's increasing public acceptance.
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Reuters

Michigan's gay-marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional last Friday, struck down by Bernard Friedman, a judge who was originally appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan. A couple of days later, when Friedman’s decision was stayed pending an appeal, the state's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, didn't speak out against it. Rather, he said he would go along with the court either way.

A Republican-appointed judge and a Republican governor easing the path for gay marriage: The Michigan case was just the latest example of the role Republicans are playing in the rapidly changing landscape of gay marriage in America. From Republican officeholders to the GOP rank and file, the party that once wielded antagonism to gay marriage as a wedge now is a major reason behind its increasing acceptance.

Since last year’s Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act—authored by another Reagan appointee, Justice Anthony Kennedy—federal judges have invalidated all or part of nine states’ gay-marriage bans. In addition to Friedman in Michigan, another Republican appointee, Judge John Heyburn, ruled that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Heyburn had been recommended for the court by Senator Mitch McConnell and appointed by George H.W. Bush.

Nor is Snyder alone among swing-state GOP governors in declining to oppose the issue's advance. In Nevada, Governor Brian Sandoval announced last month that he would no longer defend the state’s gay-marriage ban. In New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez said in January she accepted gay marriage as "the law of the land."

Three GOP U.S. senators now support gay marriage, and 10 Republicans voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate last year. (The measure, which would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by employers, is stalled in the House of Representatives.) In Illinois, gay marriage passed the state legislature last year when three Republican state representatives joined Democrats to support it. Social conservatives vowed electoral revenge, but in the state's Republican primaries last week, all three survived.

"Gay marriage is the last frontier of civil rights, and it would be nice if Republicans didn't have to be dragged kicking and screaming" toward acceptance, Mark McKinnon, a GOP consultant who once made campaign ads for George W. Bush, told me in an email. "The good news is, I think Republicans are coming around." National GOP politicians seem loath to broach the issue, and at gatherings like this month's Conservative Political Action Conference it gets less and less attention, he noted: "The wedge has lost its edge."

A decade ago, Republicans campaigned aggressively on their opposition to gay marriage. Bush promised to push for a constitutional amendment to ban it; the state-level gay-marriage amendments that appeared on 11 states' 2004 ballots passed with an average of 70 percent of the vote, helping turn out Bush voters in the process. Fast forward to today: Bush's onetime campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, came out in The Atlantic in 2010 and is now a strategist and fundraiser for gay marriage nationally. More than 100 prominent Republicans signed onto a Supreme Court brief in support of gay marriage last year; 20 Western GOPers, including former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, endorsed a similar appellate-court brief this month. The brief was authored by a Denver lawyer who had served as counsel to Mitt Romney's campaign in Colorado, and who told the New York Times it was about "liberty and freedom."

It's not just lawmakers and consultants—it's voters, too. A New York Times/CBS News poll last month found 40 percent of Republicans support gay marriage, up from just 24 percent in September 2012. Young Republicans are partly responsible: A Pew poll this month found 61 percent of Republicans under 30 support gay marriage. But that doesn’t suffice to explain the phenomenon. “We’re witnessing more than just generational turnover,” Tyler Deaton, campaign manager for Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, wrote in a memo on the GOP shift scheduled to be released Wednesday. “Conservatives are changing their minds.”

Opponents of gay marriage aren’t convinced. Chris Plante, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage, told me that the polls showing growing GOP support are questionable, the judicial decisions are "wrong," and the politicians changing their tune or downplaying the issue are spotlight-grubbing elites motivated by the promise of campaign donations. (There is a vibrant donor network of wealthy Republican gay-marriage backers, including hedge-funder and Romney bundler Paul Singer.) The Republican Party platform still opposes same-sex marriage, he noted, and “the vast number of the grassroots are strongly in favor of marriage as one man and one woman,” Plante told me.

It's understandable that Plante would insist the GOP is still on his side. The less Republicans' partisan identity is bound up in support for traditional marriage, the easier it becomes for them to defect. Without a political party resisting it as a matter of dogma, acceptance of gay marriage is likely to continue its rapid acceleration. But Plante’s argument is not very convincing in the face of the mounting evidence to the contrary. These days, Republicans are a big part of the momentum behind Americans’ support for gay marriage. And that support seems to increase with every passing day.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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