The GOP’s dilemma: Winning over gay rights advocates could mean losing part of its base

Posted by Perry Bacon Jr. on

"When Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) agreed to attend a fundraising dinner in Washington for the Log Cabin Republicans, many social conservatives were outraged. The group has long urged the GOP to be more accepting of gay rights, and some Republicans worried that the appearance by Cornyn, a party leader in Congress, would further legitimize its views.

"The senator not only attended the Log Cabin event at the Capitol Hill Club last Wednesday, he also accepted an award from the group, becoming the highest-ranking Republican to do so. After his speech, though, the group's president, R. Clarke Cooper, privately told Cornyn he still wanted him to back a repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' the policy that bans openly gay people from serving in the military. A day earlier, Cornyn, joined by 40 other Senate Republicans, had blocked a Democratic-pushed bill that would have changed the policy.

"The strong views from both sides that Cornyn faced illustrated the complicated politics of gay rights for the GOP. As polls show that growing numbers of Americans back greater rights for gay men and lesbians, some well-known Republican figures, such as former party chairman Ken Mehlman, who recently came out, are calling for the party to shift its stances on such issues. But Christian conservatives warn that the GOP could lose its base if it endorses the freedom to marry or takes other pro-gay-rights stands.

"The issue could become more important over the next year. Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail are likely to be asked their views on gay rights issues. Activists might push GOP leaders in Congress to approve bans on marriage equality if courts continue to legalize it, as the California Supreme Court did this year.

... "After Obama's victory [in 2008], in which he easily won the youth vote, some Republicans worried that their party's stance on gay rights could cost them a generation of voters much more accepting of homosexuality. Steve Schmidt [a Freedom to Marry Voice for Equality], who had been top adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2008 presidential campaign, delivered a speech in April 2009 to the Log Cabin Republicans saying that the GOP risked becoming a 'sectarian' party if didn't change.

... "This debate came to a head as House Republicans wrote the Pledge to America, the agenda they released last week. Social conservatives wanted an affirmation in the document of the [so-called] Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Party leaders told them that voters are mainly concerned with the economy this year, and that they were not sure that the agenda should include such issues.

"The Pledge ended up with a line in its preamble extolling 'traditional marriage,' a phrase that conservative groups like, but little else on gay rights issues."

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