There is growing momentum in the Republican Party to end its long-standing opposition to same-sex marriage, with activists inside the party arguing that such a move would allow Republican candidates to focus on popular economic themes in this year's elections and help expand the party's appeal ahead of 2016.
The change is being spurred far away from Washington by state party officials and local GOP operatives who believe it no longer makes political sense to block attempts to expand marriage rights to gay men and lesbians.
Illinois Republicans last weekend ousted party officials who disagreed with a former state party chairman's support for same-sex marriage. Nevada Republicans just days ago removed language from the party platform regarding whether gay people should be allowed to marry. A new fundraising committee supporting pro-gay-marriage GOP congressional candidates announced last week that it raised more than $2 million in the first quarter from wealthy Republican donors who support gay rights.
Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, agreed that "a tectonic shift is taking place in the Republican Party on marriage equality." He cited several polls showing shifting support even as leaders remain opposed. "For the Republican hierarchy, it's a very straightforward question," Sainz said. "How can they attract the next generation of voters and not support an issue young people have made their minds up on?"
Half of Americans believe that gay people have a constitutional right to marry, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released in March. But Republicans and conservatives are about the only demographic or political group still opposed to same-sex marriage. Fifty-four percent of Republicans oppose legal gay marriage, while 40 percent approve of it, according to the poll. That compares with 70 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of independents who support it.
But a recent Pew Research Center poll showed a stark generational divide among Republicans. More than six in 10 Republicans and "Republican leaners" under age 30 favor same-sex marriage, while just 35 percent oppose it. By contrast, just 27 percent of Republicans ages 50 and older favor allowing gays to marry, the Pew poll found.
Those findings encourage Tyler Deaton, a 28-year old GOP activist in Concord, N.H. He's leading Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, a national network that hopes to raise $1 million by the summer of 2016 to persuade the Republican National Committee to drop "anti-gay language" from the national GOP platform.
"I think we're going to be successful," Deaton said. "I think that this is the right time, that if the party wants to grow, then for the party to reach new voters, this is a necessary change."
None of the people mentioned as 2016 GOP presidential candidates publicly support same-sex marriage. Ten Republican senators voted with Democrats last year to ban workplace discrimination against gay and transgender workers, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other top Republican leaders opposed the Senate bill and are against same-sex marriage.
Boehner has publicly declared that he could not imagine changing his position on same-sex marriage, but the political calculus is more complicated; Boehner is supporting two gay GOP congressional candidates, Carl DeMaio in California and Richard Tisei in Massachusetts, both listed among top-tier Republican recruits this year.
The national Republican Party platform states that "we believe that marriage, the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard, a goal to stand for, encourage, and promote through laws governing marriage." The next sentence reads: "We embrace the principle that all Americans should be treated with respect and dignity."
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday that "the principles of the party were reaffirmed at last year's convention and are what currently guide us."
But if Deaton achieves his goal, it will help fulfill one of the recommendations of an RNC-commissioned report published last year that said Republicans are not doing enough to attract younger voters and to talk about social issues in ways that do not alienate younger or minority voters.
Gay rights and same-sex marriage rank nowhere near the top of voter concerns this year, with most focused instead on economic and health-care matters. That is part of the reason why officials in Illinois and Nevada believed that they could take a stand in support of same-sex marriage. They figured that by removing the issue from the political conversation, GOP candidates can woo independent swing voters with an economic message instead of tripping up on social issues that might offend or alienate new supporters.
"You have to focus on the debt and deficit and allow social issues to take a back seat," said Pat Brady, the former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
Brady stepped down as party leader last year because of family issues but had spent most of his tenure speaking in support of gay marriage. He had seen the polls suggesting rapidly shifting public opinion, and he believed that speaking out was consistent with his conservative beliefs. "It's a family issue," Brady said in an interview. "If adults want to enter into a consensual relationship, that's fine. The government shouldn't tell them that they shouldn't."
Over the weekend, most Illinois Republicans agreed with Brady and voted to oust six of seven party committee leaders who had called for Brady's removal because of his stance on same-sex marriage.
In Nevada, about 600 state Republicans gathered this month for their annual convention and agreed to strip the state party platform of any mention of gay marriage and abortion. Dan Schwartz, the state party finance chairman, said the backlash has been minimal and confined to a few conservatives who have blasted the party through social media.
"People here don't like to be told what to do," Schwartz said. "We don't want the government's hand in our wallet and we don't want the government in our bedrooms."
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Washington Post staffer Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.
By Ed O'Keefe
The Washington Post