Politics of gay marriage: How close is GOP to changing its stand?

While there is some movement on the issue of gay marriage in the GOP, there are more shoes that would need to drop before a sweeping change in the party. But the tension is mounting.

Office of US Sen. Rob Portman/AP
Sen. Rob Portman (c.) poses with his family (from left to right) son Will Portman, wife Jane Portman, daughter Sally Portman, and son Jed Portman. Senator Portman is now supporting gay marriage and says his reversal on the issue began when he learned his son Will is gay.

As the US Supreme Court considers two historic gay marriage cases this week, the politics of the issue are also in the spotlight. Five US senators, most of them not liberal – Rob Portman, Claire McCaskill, Mark Warner, Jay Rockefeller, and Mark Begich – have all recently announced support for a right to same-sex marriage, the last four this week.

There’s a pattern to these announcements. In the case of Senator Portman, a Republican, the change of heart came because of his gay son. And he’s from Ohio, a battleground state that mirrors the politics of the nation as a whole, which have shown a steady, marked shift toward approval of same-sex marriage. Nationally, the number is now well above 50 percent.

Senator McCaskill of Missouri is a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state who was just reelected and won’t be up again until 2018. Senator Warner (D) of Virginia – like Ohio, a big swing state – is up for reelection in 2014, and probably safe. Senator Rockefeller (D), a liberal, represents increasingly conservative West Virginia, but he is retiring.

Senator Begich of Alaska might be the closest call of the four: He’s a Democrat up for reelection next year in a Republican state. And support for gay marriage in Alaska is at just 43 percent, according to Public Policy Polling. But Begich seems to be counting on a libertarian streak in his state that goes beyond gay marriage.  

“Alaskans are fed up with government intrusion into our private lives, our daily business, and in the way we manage our resources and economy,” he said in his announcement Monday.

So what is the next shoe to drop? Republicans who favor the right to same-sex marriage are increasingly common. Vice President Dick Cheney announced his support way back in 2004, citing his gay daughter. Last month, dozens of prominent Republicans – former governors and members of Congress, former advisers to Republican administrations, former advisers to recent presidential campaigns – signed on to an amicus brief arguing that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The effort was organized by former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, who came out as gay after he left public life.

But the list of signatories was heavy on “former.” Far more unusual, among Republicans, is for a current elected official to publicly change position. That’s what made Portman’s announcement especially noteworthy. Still, as with Vice President Cheney, there was a personal impetus behind the switch: his child.

So here’s a test of how deeply the gay marriage sea change in public opinion is reaching into the GOP: when a major Republican currently holding elective office in a red state – and who does not have a gay child or another close relative – announces that he or she now supports a right to same-sex marriage.

Many Republicans say it’s just a matter of time. In fact, some Republicans say it’s entirely possible that the GOP’s next presidential nominee will support same-sex marriage.

“At the rate this issue is changing within the party, I think it’s not out of the question,” Margaret Hoover, a former George W. Bush White House aide, told Time magazine.

In its recent “autopsy” addressing the GOP’s failures last November, a Republican National Committee task force practically begged party members to tone down the rhetoric opposing gay rights.

“For the GOP to appeal to younger voters, we do not have to agree on every issue, but we do need to make sure young people do not see the party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view,” the report said. “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.”

Social-conservative leader Gary Bauer rejects the idea that widespread acceptance of gay marriage is inevitable.

“Frankly, the argument that the public is overwhelmingly in favor of same sex marriage … is ludicrous,” Mr. Bauer said on “Meet the Press” last Sunday. “Thirty-three states have voted to keep marriage the union of one man and one woman.”

When presented with recent polls showing majority public support nationally for gay marriage, Bauer called the polls “skewed.” And he added that in the four states last November that voted in favor of same-sex marriage, “his side” had 45 to 46 percent support.  

If nothing else, the discussion showed that the internal GOP schism on gay marriage isn’t going away anytime soon. But for some elected Republicans, the question of where to stand is no longer obvious.

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