Recent polls show record-levels of support for the freedom to marry. This surge in support is only possible due to a major shift in Republican attitudes on gay marriage. We’re witnessing more than just generational turnover; conservatives are changing their minds. This memo crystalizes recent developments in how conservatives think about marriage for same-sex couples and provides a window into what we can expect this year on the issue in elections and in the courts.
Seismic Shift in Public Opinion
Conventional wisdom points to a significant generational divide on the issue. A Pew poll out this month shows for the first time that more than 60% of Republican and Republican leaners under 30 support the freedom to marry. Even self-identified evangelical voters—representing the core of the opposition to marriage equality—are experiencing an internal upheaval in their views. One study determined that nearly two-thirds of young evangelicals support the freedom to marry.
But growth in GOP support is taking place among more than just millennials, and the rate of growth has sped up dramatically. Recent surveys from Washington Post/ABC News and New York Times register 40% of Republicans supporting marriage for same-sex couples. Between 2006 and 2011, GOP support grew a total of 8 percentage points. Now, support is growing even faster: one poll shows a 15% increase in support among Republicans in less than two years. Such accelerated growth speaks volumes. “On no issue in American life have opinions changed as fast as they have on gay rights,” said prominent Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “It is truly a stunning development.” Though not a surprising one. The freedom to marry is, after all, consistent with conservative values of individual liberty, responsibility, and family stability.
Momentum in the States
Beyond public opinion, there are concrete changes coming from GOP policymakers at the state level just in the past several weeks.
In Michigan, a federal judge—appointed by Ronald Reagan—ruled that the state’s ban on marriage is unconstitutional.
In Nevada, Governor Brian Sandoval sided with his attorney general in not defending marriage discrimination in his state.
In Kentucky, a federal judge—appointed by George H.W. Bush and recommended by Senator Mitch McConnell—ruled that out-of-state marriages by gay couples must be respected in the Bluegrass State.
In New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez called the freedom to marry in her state “the law of the land.”
In Illinois, despite aggressive anti-gay attacks by opponents, the three Republican members of the state House of Representatives who voted for marriage in 2013 won their primary races on March 18.
On March 4, a group of Republicans from the West, invoking ronald reagan and Barry Goldwater, signed a historic friend-of-the-court brief in favor of the freedom to marry. Signers included former Senators Alan Simpson (WY) and Nancy Kassebaum (KS), as well as Sean Sullivan, counsel for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in Colorado — all of whom, according to the brief, “embrace Ronald Reagan’s belief that the Republican Party must be a ‘big tent.’” Seven Republican lawmakers from Wyoming also backed the freedom to marry the same week the brief was filed.
And, finally, a big picture point: Marriage equality is legal in many of the 17 states because Republicans joined up and voted for it. Without GOP state legislators and voters taking a stand, many of these wins could not have happened. Democratic and Independent support alone wouldn’t have cut it. In fact, according to research by American Unity Fund, more than 230 Republican state legislators have spoken out in favor of the freedom to marry, voted for it, or voted against efforts to repeal it.
Opposition: The Silence is Deafening
If you compare what was going on in the last decade on gay rights to today, it’s a new era. Back then there was an energized effort among conservatives to ban marriage for gay people both on Capitol Hill (the Federal Marriage Amendment) and during the 2004 presidential election. Marriage as a defining wedge issue in general elections has simply evaporated. We barely heard a peep from the 2012 Romney campaign on the topic. What’s much louder in this new era are the voices that support the freedom to marry- from GOP senators to corporate America to conservative moms and dads standing up for their gay kids.
Unlike in elections past, marriage won’t be a widespread wedge issue to run on in this year’s mid-terms. As the RNC’s post-mortem on the 2012 election makes clear, the party needs to “change its tone” on gay issues to be competitive. The spotlight will be on the courts. Last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling (United States v. Windsor) provided greater constitutional clarity by refuting every rationale for marriage discrimination. In the more than 50 pending marriage lawsuits in nearly 30 states, we anticipate more judges, including conservative ones, to invoke the logic of Windsor.
Despite the remarkable shift in attitudes among conservatives, our work is not done. We strive to see a solid majority of Republicans support the freedom to marry–and encourage those who do to make their position public. All of this can and will happen more quickly than most people think. Like Karl Rove, we too can imagine a Republican presidential candidate backing the freedom to marry in the 2016 election.
But then again, the marriage question may be decided even sooner if the U.S. Supreme Court—as early as next year—rules that the freedom to marry is the law of the land. It’s a matter of when, not if, this great country ensures that, in the words of former Vice President Dick Cheney, “freedom means freedom for everyone.” And we intend to make sure that, as this country makes its journey, an increasing number of strong voices of support from GOP and conservative leaders are heard clearly.
Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry is a campaign to highlight and build support for the freedom to marry among young conservatives across America. They represent the rapidly growing numbers of young conservatives across the country that agree all Americans should be able to share in the freedom to marry.