Chad Livengood/The Detroit News/AP
Greg McNeilly (l.), a prominent Michigan Republican Party strategist, married his longtime partner Doug Meeks on March 22, 2014, outside the Ingham County courtroom of Judge William Collette.

Gay marriage: Is GOP tiptoeing away from opposition?

Most young Republicans favor the right to same-sex marriage and a more inclusive stance by party leaders. But social conservatives say that scaling back opposition is a high risk.

A great debate is going on within the Republican Party over how to handle one of the most sensitive social issues of modern times: the definition of marriage.

Supporters of same-sex marriage point to signs that the party is gradually changing its tune on the issue, as it seeks to grow its appeal among younger voters and project a more inclusive image.

While defense of traditional marriage has long been a defining issue for GOP social conservatives, a recent Pew poll found that 61 percent of Republicans under age 30 favor the right to same-sex marriage.

  • Earlier this month, the Nevada Republican Party removed opposition to gay marriage from its platform.
  • On April 19, most of the Illinois Republican officials who had acted to remove the state party chairman over his support of same-sex marriage lost their party positions.
  • On April 29, the Washington College Republican Federation announced it had passed a resolution calling for a change to both the state and federal Republican platforms’ stance on marriage to make them more “inclusive.”
  • In January, the New Mexico College Republicans agreed to drop language opposing same-sex marriage from their platform.

“The movement in favor [of same-sex marriage rights] is moving much faster than many would have predicted in the Republican Party, but it’s still a very difficult issue,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.  

Supporters of exclusively traditional marriage reject the idea that broad acceptance of gay marriage is “inevitable,” and blame the media for peddling that point of view. A March poll commissioned by two social conservative groups found that 82 percent of Republicans believe that marriage should only be between “one man and one woman.”

Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values, acknowledges a shift in opinion among young people. But “I also think you don’t run a country or make decisions based on what 18-to-25-year-olds think,” says Mr. Bauer, whose group commissioned the March poll along with the Family Research Council.

“It adds up to a high-risk moment for the Republican Party, because I guarantee you if they drop this issue, you will not see another Republican president in my lifetime,” Bauer says.

Young conservatives who support same-sex marriage see the issue differently, saying that a Republican Party that backs off its opposition to gay marriage would come out ahead by widening its appeal among economic conservatives.

Earlier this month, the group Freedom to Marry launched a $1 million campaign by young conservatives to change the GOP platform at the 2016 Republican National Convention. The campaign is recruiting young people to get involved in the party and serve as delegates to the convention, then push to remove what it calls divisive, anti-gay-marriage references in the platform and replace them with “unifying language.”

The proposed new language states that “marriage matters both as a religious institution and as a fundamental, personal freedom.” It also acknowledges “diverse and sincerely held views on civil marriage within the party,” and calls for a “thoughtful conversation among Republicans about the meaning and importance of marriage.”

Some Republicans say the best solution is for the platform to be silent on marriage. But Tyler Deaton, the campaign manager for Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, disagrees.

“We believe marriage is important, and we believe parties should have strong positions about marriage and family,” Mr. Deaton says.

After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee (RNC) did some soul-searching on how to widen its appeal among women, minorities, young voters, and other groups that skew Democratic, and released a report on its findings.

“Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays – and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be,” the authors wrote. “If our party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out.”

It was more a call for a change of tone than a full-on call for support of same-sex marriage. But some Republicans call it an important start.

“You have to have a slow move toward where you’re talking about respect, and saying, ‘Hey, these are people, too,’ ” says Mr. O’Connell, who adds that it’s “highly unlikely” the party’s presidential nominee in 2016 will endorse gay marriage.

Around the edges, prominent Republicans have become involved in efforts to promote gay marriage rights in the past few years. In February 2013, 131 Republicans signed an amicus brief submitted to the US Supreme Court saying that marriage is a fundamental right that should be available to gays and lesbians. The signees included many Bush administration alumni, including former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, who came out as gay in 2010.

Last June, after the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the American Civil Liberties Union hired Steve Schmidt, another Bush alum and a 2008 presidential campaign strategist for John McCain, to spearhead its campaign to strike down state laws banning gay marriage.

In 2012, billionaire hedge fund owner Paul Singer launched the American Unity PAC with a goal of supporting Republican candidates who support gay rights, including gay marriage. Last week, the group announced its initial plan for 2014, to spend $500,000 on behalf of two openly gay GOP House candidates in California and Massachusetts: Carl DeMaio, who’s running for Congress in San Diego, and Richard Tisei, who is running for Massachusetts’ Sixth District.

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