The ground is shifting underneath the feet of mainstream Republicans.
Many Republicans now see support of same-sex marriage as a way to gain relevance with a changing voting populace. After the 2012 presidential election, in which the Republicans were handily defeated by Democratic support from Latinos, African Americans and gay populations, many members of the GOP feel that the Republicans cannot return to power under the party’s current demographics.
In Minnesota, a prominent group of national Republican donors, American Unity PAC, is pouring money into a lobbying effort to get state Republican legislators to support gay marriage.
By law, Minnesota can only ban recognition of same-sex marriage with approval by the voters. During last year’s election, Minnesota became only the second state to reject a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and is the only state to maintain that rejection currently. Arizona rejected such a ban as well, but eventually approved it in a subsequent election. This leaves Minnesota in a legal grey area that is unique in the nation; it neither recognizes nor bans same-sex marriages.
While by a 1997 statute same-sex marriage is still illegal in Minnesota, the 2011 legislation that gives the voters authority to approve a ban places the 1997 statute on shaky ground and makes it fundamentally unenforceable; the state will not grant marriage certificates to same-sex couples, but 18 cities in Minnesota — including the cities of Minneapolis, Duluth, St. Paul, Rochester, Red Wing and Eden Prairie — have Domestic Partner Registries that allow unmarried couples (homosexual or heterosexual) to obtain a certificate of commitment to each other.
However, for some Minnesota Republicans, de facto same-sex marriage is not enough. American Unity PAC, founded last year, has launched the American Unity Fund, a lobbying organization, which in the last 12 months has already spent more than $250,000 in polling efforts and in lobbying key GOP state legislators. A bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota could be voted on in the legislature as early as next week.
Since last month, American Unity PAC has spent more than half of a million dollars in lobbying efforts in Rhode Island, Delaware, Indiana, West Virginia and Utah. Last week, a gay marriage support bill cleared the Rhode Island Senate, 26 to 12, and is now on its way to the state House of Representatives for approval. Rhode Island, a heavily Roman Catholic state where gay marriage legislation was once thought impossible, will be the last New England state to approve marriage equality.
“Rhode Island will no longer be an outlier in our region. We will have the welcome mat out,” Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I-R.I.) said in a statement. “We will be open for business, and we will once again affirm our legacy as a place that is tolerant and appreciative of diversity.” Besides the New England states, New York, Iowa, Maryland and Washington recognize same-sex marriage, as does the District of Columbia. Same-sex recognition in California is currently being argued before the courts.
The fight ahead
Among Republicans, all of this is creating an ideological crisis; for decades, the Republicans have vehemently fought against gay rights in the U.S. In Minnesota, despite the heavy lobbying, only one Republican state legislator, Sen. Branden Petersen (R-Andover), has publicly committed to voting for legalization of same-sex marriage. “I think there will be some more. There are legislators out there that are struggling with this,” commented Carl Kuhl, a onetime political aide to former Republican Senator Norm Coleman.
While support from the cities and the socially moderate suburbs may carry the bill through the state Senate, the fight in the House promises to be more cantankerous. House Speaker Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) feels that this issue should not be seen as a partisan issue and should be approached as a human rights issue.
However, state Republicans that support gay marriage will potentially face political consequences from Minnesota for Marriage — the primary opposition to same-sex marriage in the state — and may face primary challenges from anti-gay marriage groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage.
Despite this, there is a shift in the Republican Party’s view of gay marriage. According to a March Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent of all Americans feel that gay marriage should be legalized. In this poll, 34 percent of all Republicans feel that same-sex marriage should be legalized, a 10 point increase from when the question was first asked in 2004. Responses seem to fall along age lines: 81 percent of all young adults aged 18 to 29 support same-sex marriage, while only 44 percent of adults 65 years old or older do.
According to the poll, 52 percent of all Republican-leaning voters under 50 now support same-sex marriage. “Younger people who consider themselves conservatives just don’t care,” said public policy professor Craig Rimmerman. “These younger conservatives are more concerned with the state of the economy and whether they are going to have a job when they come out of school.”
In defiance to the fact that just last August during the Republican National Convention the GOP ratified a platform that called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, defections from the platform continue to mount.
Last month, in the challenge against California’s Proposition 8 — which outlawed same-sex marriage in that state — before the U.S. Supreme Court (Perry v. Hollingsworth, 2013), there was an amicus brief attached signed by 130 prominent national Republicans in support of same-sex marriage on the ground that “[t]here is no legitimate reason to exclude committed same-sex couples from marriage. The Court should protect the fundamental right of civil marriage by ensuring that it is available to same-sex couples.”
While in the current congress support for gay marriage have been mostly limited to the Democrats, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) have spoken out in support of gay rights. As stated by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in regard to Portman’s announcement of support: “I think it’s about being decent. It’s about dignity and respect, that nobody deserves to have their dignity diminished.”