Is the GOP Caving on Defense of Marriage?

As the Supreme Court prepares to consider the issue, some prominent Republicans publicly support a redefinition to include same-sex unions.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, reversed his stance on same-sex 'marriage.'
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, reversed his stance on same-sex 'marriage.' (photo: Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON — Is the GOP leadership weighing a retreat from its defense of traditional marriage?

With the U.S. Supreme Court preparing to hear oral arguments this month for two high-profile marriage cases, more than 80 Republicans have signed a legal brief supporting the repeal of Proposition 8, the ballot referendum passed by California’s voters to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor and GOP presidential candidate, along with fellow former Govs. William Weld (Massachusetts) and Christie Todd Whitman (New Jersey), and one-time National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman were among the signatories of the brief.

Then Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, reversed his stance on same-sex “marriage.” Portman said his college-age son, a junior at Yale University, who told his parents he was homosexual two years ago, inspired him to reassess his position on the issue.

“It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years,” Portman said in a March 14 interview with Ohio reporters in his office.

Portman, a Methodist, said he had consulted with clergy members before reversing his position on same-sex “marriage.” In 1996, then a member of the House of Representatives, Portman backed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of man and one woman under federal law.

Yet the senator’s announcement did not cause much consternation among top-level Republicans, who continue to assess and debate the reasons for their failure to gain the White House and the Senate during the 2013 election.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who just introduced an assessment of the party’s campaign performance, entitled “The Growth and Opportunity Project,” said Portman had “made some pretty big inroads” into broadening the GOP’s appeal.

The report introduced by Priebus is also stirring fears among supporters of traditional marriage that the GOP may backtrack on its stance, which led the GOP-controlled House to take up the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts after the Obama administration refused to do so. The report found “a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and 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 report added: “If our party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out.”


Public Opinion Shift

Some Republicans and political scientists view the GOP’s failure to win the White House and the Senate as the result of a “demographic and public-opinion tsunami on several fronts,” with the issue of same-sex “marriage” as one of those issues, said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

“Nationwide, support for gay marriage has strong majority support from voters. Regionally, in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the West Coast, and even in the Mountain West, support is soaring. Demographically, the future electorate that is today’s young people is astonishingly high in its support for gay marriage,” Schneck told the Register, adding that he expects to see more Republicans follow Portman’s decision.

“I don’t think we’ll see the party platform change on this, because the GOP base is strongly opposed,” said Schneck, who is a politically active Democrat. “But, the party wants to win national elections and stay competitive in places outside the South. It probably can’t risk alienating the rising majorities of regular voters who are okay with same-sex unions.”

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll reported that 58% of respondents supported same-sex “marriage,” an all-time high.

“So, looking at the numbers, I suspect we’ll see lots of GOP candidates either supporting or finding other ways to accommodate gay marriage,” Schneck said.



Thomas Peters, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the largest U.S. advocacy group defending traditional marriage, suggested that media reports have overstated the Republican Party’s fracturing on marriage.

Peters, who is Catholic, noted that five of the six Republican presidential candidates in 2012 signed NOM’s pro-marriage pledge, and the one who did not — Huntsman — ended his run early, after finishing third in the New Hampshire Primary.

“It’s about how many people buy into the media narrative that they’re trying to create,” said Peters, who attended last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington.

Some high-profile speakers at CPAC defended the traditional definition of marriage, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is touted as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, and former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who is now the president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot,” Rubio told the CPAC crowd last Thursday.

However, pro-same-sex “marriage” sentiments were also heard during CPAC’s events and panel discussions. In one panel, Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post blogger, opined that the Republican Party needed to change its position because “the debate has already taken place in America,” adding, “We cannot be at war with America on issues of fairness, on issues of equality.”


Boehner Holds Firm

Despite these apparent fissures, many leading Republicans still defend the traditional definition of marriage. On March 17, speaking on This Week on ABC, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: “Listen, I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. It’s what I grew up with. It’s what I believe."

Boehner, who is Catholic, added, “It’s what my Church teaches me. And — I can’t imagine that position would ever change.”

Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who still carries great influence among political conservatives, warned that the Republican Party, by changing course on marriage, would not pull “homosexual activist voters” away from the Democratic Party, but would rather anger the party’s base and cause them to stay home on Election Day.

The Family Research Council's president, Tony Perkins, writing in his daily newsletter, said the RNC “autopsy report” called for throwing the party’s social conservatives overboard and had concluded that the only way for the GOP to win elections is to “parrot the left’s policies.”

“It looks like Democrats won’t need to spend a lot of money building a case against the GOP — because the Republican Party is doing it for them!” Perkins wrote.

Indeed, recent polling shows that rank-and-file Republican voters are still more likely to believe in traditional marriage than party leaders and operatives who move in elite circles. The ABC-Washington Post poll found that only 34% of Republicans support same-sex “marriage,” with only 24% support from those who described themselves as “conservative Republicans.”

“When a Republican decides to come out in favor of gay marriage, when they are staring at the lights of the media cameras, their grassroots supporters are quietly going out the back door,” said Peters, who argued that it remains difficult for Republicans who endorse same-sex “marriage” to keep their seats.

Peters added that Portman could lose his seat and that his reversal on same-sex “marriage” had weakened any presidential aspirations he may have had.

Asked Peters, “If the media is so interested in Republicans who disagree with their party’s platform on marriage, then why don’t they tell the stories of conservative Democrats who disagree with their party’s platform on marriage and abortion?”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.