Winning Bipartisan Support
Freedom to Marry put real effort into building bipartisan support, and demonstrating that support in order to show that specific states – and ultimately the country – were ready for the freedom to marry. Despite the partisan division in the US (and the real differences between the parties on gay people and on the freedom to marry), we knew we needed to show momentum on both sides of the aisle both to create the climate for the Supreme Court and to secure the building-blocks of progress in the states and majority support called for in our national strategy. In many legislatures, securing at least a few GOP votes was essential for the win. And at the ballot, though we relied on Democratic and Independent votes to provide the bulk of our support, we also needed to make a strong case to Republicans to pick up a slice of voters while sustaining the narrative and refuting attacks.
As the marriage debate raged throughout the 2000s, we began persuading some conservatives and even high-profile Republicans to speak out on our side.
Finally, in making the case to judges and ultimately justices, many of whom were appointed by Republicans, we wanted to show that our support was not only from the Democratic side of the aisle. Again, that’s not to say that our support wasn’t overwhelmingly from Democrats, because it was. But the investment of time and the enlistment of GOP operatives and strategists to help build trust and enlist support was a crucial part of making the case that all of America was ready, and of reducing the resistance and beginning to move conservatives, Republicans, Evangelicals, and seniors to our side.
History of GOP Support
In the first decades of our struggle, the freedom to marry was a cause that neither Democrats nor Republicans were eager to embrace. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act was pushed by Republicans, but passed Congress with overwhelming support from both parties, and was signed into law by a Democratic president. Even as late as 2003 and the Massachusetts ruling in favor of the freedom to marry leading to the first same-sex couples marrying, opposition was fierce and bipartisan. The most vociferous responses came from the GOP—President George W. Bush and his political team sought to use the ruling as a means of getting religious right voters to the polls in 2004, and Governor Mitt Romney, who was preparing for a run for president, vowed to do everything he could to stop marriage. Leading Democrats, though, didn’t embrace the decision either. In Massachusetts, the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, and the Attorney General were all opposed, and even US Senator John Kerry – who had voted against DOMA in 1996 – opposed the marriage ruling and supported a state constitutional amendment to take it away and replace marriage with civil union. As we began our organizing work, without a doubt it was Democrats who embraced the cause first.
Nevertheless, even in those early days of the work, our efforts put significant focus on elevating GOP spokespeople. We reached out to retired GOP State Senator William Saltonstall, the son of a former US senator, heir to a famous Massachusetts political name, and the father of a lesbian daughter, to join our MassEquality campaign and be a public spokesperson at key rallies. Even if, at that point, we didn’t have a great deal of Republican support, by highlighting the support we did have, it showed others—elected, the media, business leaders and the like—how serious we were about growing support beyond the usual base. By the time of the final vote on a constitutional amendment to undo the Goodridge decision in 2007, the Republican leaders of both the House and the Senate were voting our way.
As the marriage debate raged throughout the 2000s, we began persuading some conservatives and even high-profile Republicans to speak out on our side. Perhaps the most notable were Vice President Dick Cheney – who famously declared that “Freedom means freedom for everyone” when he came out in support of the freedom to marry (and in opposition to George W. Bush’s call for a discriminatory federal constitutional amendment to block marriage) – and Republican former congressman Bob Barr, who recanted his sponsorship of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and embraced the freedom to marry.
In 2009, Bush Administration Solicitor General Ted Olson lent his support to the cause, joining with David Boies to challenge California’s Proposition 8 in federal court. One of the founders of the conservative Federalist Society, Olson’s support gave a push to other Republican electeds and judges to consider supporting marriage. Olson’s “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” on the front page of Newsweek was an influential piece, and he proved an eloquent messenger for the freedom to marry.
The next key benchmark in GOP support was in New York state, when in 2011, our ramped-up campaign succeeded in persuading leaders of the Republican state senate to allow a vote on the marriage bill, even with threats from the Conservative Party in New York to punish the GOP for having done so. The agreement was the result of years of organizing work led by Log Cabin Republicans of New York and the Gill Action Fund, in partnership with The Empire State Pride Agenda and Freedom to Marry. Our joint campaign hired a team of Republican political strategists, lobbyists and pollsters who GOP lawmakers trusted to help make the case. As the vote grew closer, former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman engaged actively in making the case to New York lawmakers, as did GOP mega-donor Paul Singer (along with some other GOP hedge-fund directors who Singer enlisted). For more on the New York marriage campaign, read Marc Solomon’s How We Won New York.
Soon after the New York victory, a GOP team of strategists that Freedom to Marry had assembled in New Hampshire orchestrated another powerful victory, defeating Tea Party Republicans and anti-gay conservatives’ attempts to repeal that state’s marriage law in the House of Representatives and securing a stunning majority of Republicans voting down the repeal effort.
In the lead-up to the 2013 challenge to DOMA in the Supreme Court, Ken Mehlman organized – for the first time – a GOP amicus brief laying out a conservative case for the freedom to marry and signed by an A-List group of appointed and formerly elected Republican leaders. These included former governors Jon Huntsman, Christine Todd Whitman, Tom Ridge, William Weld and Jane Swift, along with several current and former members of Congress and senior leaders in the Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 administrations.
Along with our partners joining us to create a climate around the Supreme Court as it considered two marriage-related cases in 2013, Freedom to Marry released a television spot highlighting leading officials who had embraced the cause, with a focus on prominent Republicans. The spot, which included Laura Bush, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney, garnered widespread news coverage.
During the lead-up to final resolution in the Supreme Court in 2015, once again our campaign put a premium on elevating Republican voices. Freedom to Marry ran a national television spot featuring former US Senator Alan Simpson making the case for the freedom to marry, along with another spot highlighting the story of a gay Republican Naval officer from Tennessee who was denied the right to marry. Another GOP amicus brief included new prominent signers such as former senators John Danforth and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, as well as Army General Stanley McChrystal.
TV Ad: Senator Alan Simpson for the Freedom to Marry
TV Ad: U.S. Navy Combat Veteran Fights for the Freedom to Marry
Key Lessons Learned
- Enlist Republicans to do Republican outreach: All elected officials are sensitive to the political ramifications of taking a stance on any controversial cause, and retired elected and appointed officials are concerned about their reputation. To give confidence to these leaders that engaging will not harm them politically and to engender trust that their names will be used with sensitivity (rather than worrying about being used), it’s very helpful to have a Republican strategist or operative conduct the outreach and shepherd the relationship. In the New York marriage campaign, in working with GOP lawmakers and the state Senate leadership, we built out a GOP team that led that engagement. A team of GOP strategists, communications experts, and lobbyists wanted to keep the Senate in GOP control and therefore, they could answer electoral questions and concerns, as well as provide smart messaging and communications guidance. It’s difficult for the best-intentioned progressive to even be aware of what some of those concerns are, and the Republican is unlikely to trust that they will be (the same applies vice versa, of course). Freedom to Marry saw great success in our federal work, building support and educating members of Congress, when we paired our Federal Director, Jo Deutsch (a Democrat coming out of the labor movement) with our hired lobbyist, Kathryn Lehman, a Republican who had helped write the Defense of Marriage Act while working for then-House Judiciary Chair Henry Hyde, but now supported the freedom to marry.
- Make an Electoral Case: The top priority for nearly every elected official is continuing being an elected official. That means that, if you are asking a lawmaker to take a vote that they think will cost them their seat, it’s very unlikely they’ll do so. Republican primaries can be very challenging places for someone who takes a courageous vote, so it’s extra important to take electoral engagement seriously. In New Hampshire, a group of pro-equality conservatives created a PAC, New Hampshire Republicans for Freedom and Equality, with a commitment of $100,000, whose purpose was solely to back GOP lawmakers who voted against repeal of the marriage bill. Its existence – on top of the public education and organizing campaigns we led – gave confidence to lawmakers that they would have support for their campaigns if they voted our way, even if they were to lose some support from other supporters.
- Frame a Message to Appeal to Right-of-Center Voters: An important component of efforts to build conservative support and empower state decision-makers to get involved with campaigns was a deft commitment to disseminating messages consistent with American values that are extolled by conservatives. For example, our campaigns to win marriage in Nevada and Oklahoma were named “Freedom Nevada” and “Freedom Oklahoma,” with signage, taglines, and go-to messaging emphasizing that “freedom means freedom for everyone.” With freedom-centric messages buttressing the core messaging of love, commitment, and family, Republican grassroots supporters and conservative grasstops leaders were better able to connect with the campaign and be proud participants. We also worked hard to enlist messengers such as military and former military, mainstream faith leaders and business leaders who we knew would appeal to conservatives.
- When you’ve garnered conservative support, highlight it actively: Support from Republican elected officials sent a ripple effect through state campaigns and national conversations, helping change the political center of gravity on the issue. For example, following U.S. Senator Rob Portman’s announcement as the first sitting Republican Senator to support marriage for same-sex couples in 2013, a number of Red State Democratic senators also announced their support. It was clear that some of these Democratic colleagues concluded that if a conservative GOP senator can take this position, they should be able to as well. Additionally, the press loves stories that show “cracks in the armor” in the political system. Demonstrating that a cause is bipartisan moves the conventional wisdom to a place where people begin believing that a consensus is emerging. And finally, having strong GOP spokespeople helps move Republican voters our way. As a result, in the ballot campaigns we focused on in Maine, Minnesota and Washington, the campaigns made very conscious efforts to highlight people in crucial television spots who self-identified as Republicans. And when we enlisted a new voice, like former senator Alan Simpson, we created a television spot and drove it in the media as aggressively as we could.
- Appeal to young conservatives and the future: We invested in a full-fledged outreach/messenger program -- Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry – that proved very successful. Through polling, spokespeople, earned media, and social outreach, Freedom to Marry and our Young Conservatives furthered the narrative that a majority of young Republicans strongly support marriage for all – and strongly disapproved of the GOP’s ongoing fight to preserve discrimination. This helped fuel an ongoing conversation in the Republican party about how to retain and bring in new supporters, creating an ultimatum of sorts: support the freedom to marry, or risk the future of the party and support from even young conservatives.