Wednesday should have been a great day for Republicans.
For the previous 36 hours, political and media attention had been engrossed in the fallout from Hillary Clinton's exclusive use of a personal email to conduct government business while running the State Department. Instead, retired neurosurgeon and presidential hopeful Ben Carson hijacked a sizable piece of the spotlight, telling Chris Cuomo on CNN's New Day that he believes the scientifically unproven idea that homosexuality is a choice, citing prison rape as evidence.
That sent gay Republicans flying into damage control. In anticipation of a softened political climate on gay rights in the run-up to 2016, two major gay conservative groups, the Log Cabin Republicans and American Unity, are crafting strategies to position the GOP in the best possible light, both publicly and behind the scenes.
Calling Carson's comments "absolutely out of touch," Gregory Angelo, the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans—a gay conservative group with 30,000 members across the country—fired back. He disputed the narrative that Carson's views represent the entire Republican party, trying to minimize the fallout.
"This is one ridiculous statement by a man that does not have a chance to win the White House in 2016," Angelo told National Journal, noting that while he doesn't take Carson's comments "exceptionally seriously," he does feel the need to push back on them for the good of the party. "If Republicans express sentiment that is out of touch with the reality of gay families in the United States today, it's our duty to call them out on that."
While the media attention surrounding Carson's comments is "certainly not doing the party any favors," Angelo said, it's an opportunity to prepare Republican presidential contenders to approach gay rights with—if not an arms-wide-open embrace of pro-LGBT policy—empathy and respect.
That's where Tyler Deaton, senior adviser at American Unity Fund and its sister super PAC of the same name, comes in. His organization, which was founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer, works with candidates to craft thoughtful answers to a question that, because of Carson, will almost certainly come up again.
"When something like this happens, AUF kicks into high gear to make sure our fellow conservatives know this kind of rhetoric is inherently wrong and damaging to the conservative cause," he told National Journal. "We respond rapidly to make sure candidates are better equipped to talk about LGBT freedom, and in this case, help them develop better strategies for answering difficult questions such as, 'Is being gay a choice?' By doing so, we hopefully shift the public debate back to the real policy questions in front of us."
Working with candidates and campaigns allows American Unity's staff to level with fellow conservatives. Barring Carson, most Republican contenders "want to know how to talk about these issues intelligently," and without being "offensive," Deaton said. To make the case that Republicans should be more inclusive of gay conservatives, Angelo also works to forge relationships with GOP hopefuls. Though he wouldn't specify whom, he said he has already met with a number of 2016ers.
Hard evidence also helps make their point. Last month, an NBC/Marist poll showed that roughly half of GOP primary voters in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina said that opposition to gay marriage is either "mostly" or "totally" unacceptable in a presidential candidate. Because they contradict what many politicians think of the political reality on the ground, Deaton said numbers like this are "very important" for candidates to see.
Helping candidates talk about gay rights with more empathy, and working to change their minds on pro-LGBT policy, is the long game. But there's also a more classically Washington way: Throwing money at people. In last fall's midterms, American Unity spent more than $4 million in independent expenditures to support GOP candidates with agendas sympathetic to the gay community. The nearly $2 million spent on two openly gay congressional candidates, Massachusetts' Richard Tisei and New Hampshire's Dan Innis, didn't result in victories. However, the cash spent in New York's 22nd District boosted Rep. Richard Hanna, one of just a handful of GOP members of Congress who supports gay marriage, through a competitive primary.
The super PAC's efforts show candidates like Hanna and others "who have been attacked for taking a pro-freedom stance that there are people out there, we are going to back them up," Deaton said. "It's actions like that that are helping tangibly and very substantively move the dial and move it very quickly, so that Republicans know that the equation within the party is shifting."
Any Republican who says something incendiary about gay people will surely get media play. But with public rebuttals, political counsel and money, gay conservative groups are working to build a wall of defense to keep these comments on the fringe—and out of the 2016 conversation.
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