Rob Portman fallout: How far is GOP from embracing gay rights?

Despite Republican Sen. Rob Portman endorsing gay rights Friday, the party is a long way from following him. But a shift in society could make the GOP temper is message.

Office of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman/AP
This undated photo of Sen. Rob Portman's family shows, from left to right, son Will Portman, wife Jane Portman, Sen. Portman, daughter Sally Portman, and son Jed Portman. Sen. Portman is now supporting gay marriage and says his reversal on the issue began when he learned his son Will is gay.

As the Republican Party looks in the mirror in the wake of losing the presidential election last year, its assessment includes what to do about gay marriage, an issue the party has traditionally been against.

That might be changing somewhat. One of their own, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, is pushing the issue to the fore, becoming the highest-profile GOP lawmaker to lend support to gay marriage while in office.

His reversal on the issue Friday is significant considering he is one of the original backers of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the 1990s and a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman in 2004.

DOMA is under review this month by the US Supreme Court. Senator Portman says that gay marriage should be an issue for states to decide and that federal law should not prohibit gay couples from receiving the same federal benefits that heterosexual married couples enjoy.

Portman’s position is similar to a small faction in his party, which includes former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and party donor Foster Friess, who helped fund Rick Santorum's 2012 bid for president. They say that younger conservative voters are less bothered by gay marriage and that the party risks alienating future voters by presenting an all-or-nothing approach in its opposition to the issue.

“I do think the party is moving in that direction, and at some point it’s going to come to a head,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist in Washington who once served as the press secretary to then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas. “My sense is that a platform fight within the party is still eight to 10 years away, but that moment is coming.”

The platform speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week in Maryland still suggest a party that remains in large opposition to gay marriage. Indeed, recent polls show that a small percentage of registered Republican voters – 23 percent in the latest Quinnipiac University poll – support same-sex marriage.

One idea for how to proceed could come from the party's libertarian wing, which says Republicans can opt out of the debate by reframing the issue as one of states' rights. This way, the party could satisfy its evangelical base by supporting traditional marriage while pleasing moderates who do not want the party to appear too obstructionist on social issues.

“As Republicans struggle to regain their strength in the electorate, no doubt some portions of the party will similarly find reason to readjust some of their views on the social issues that have alienated important segments of the population,” says Virginia Sapiro, a professor of political science at Boston University.

Still, Professor Sapiro says, “the shift will not be massive.” The party is probably evolving into one that “consists of different fragments that can unite on some issues, such as ‘tax and spend,’ but can have deep and fundamental disagreements on others, such as social issues.”

She adds, “The Republican Party is a coalition – and the moderates will begin to fight back because they want to win elections.”

Where those fights are likely to happen are in moderate states where Republicans are united more by economic issues and less by social ones, says Ben Bishin an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, who studies the politics of gay rights.

“It will be easier for Republicans to take pro-gay marriage positions in states like California, where the nature of the Republican primary electorate is more moderate, or where Republicans are more centered on economic issues. But in places where the base is more socially conservative, it is going to be very difficult,” Professor Bishin says.

Changing the party's opposition to gay marriage is likely to gain traction only if it means bringing a sizable voting bloc to their side. That is why Republicans, in an effort to appeal to Hispanic voters, are rethinking a hard-line stance on illegal immigration.

However, gay voters represent a small minority of the Republican Party, and not one that will probably move the outcomes of tight votes one way or other. This is despite organizations like GOProud and Log Cabin Republicans, which represent the interests of gay conservatives.

“Hispanics are not only twice as large [as the gay voting population], but they are more concentrated in important states. And they are a group that we know will be growing,” says Paul Allen Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus. “Whereas Republicans are not going to have to worry about totally alienating gay voters on gay rights issues, because their numbers predicted for growth are so small.”

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