WASHINGTON — In the next few weeks, the Supreme Court will be issuing decisions in two major cases relating to same-sex couples' marriage rights. With those decisions, addressing the constitutionality of part of the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8 marriage amendment, the justices could change the conversation about gay rights in the country forever.
The question remains, however, what the immediate impact will be on the Republican Party, which has lagged behind the Democrats on support for LGBT rights measures.
"I don't make policy for the party, but if you look at the numbers, it's hard to imagine a circumstance where, 10 years down the road, opposition to same-sex marriage is a major part of the Republican Party. That's because, how can you be opposed to something that 88 percent of people under the age of 30 are for?" said Alex Lundry, a Republican pollster and data analyst who served as the director of data science for the Romney campaign.
For Republican supporters of marriage equality, they describe this as the key moment in changing the party. Margaret Hoover, who has been a stalwart supporter of marriage equality from within the party, said change needs to start with, at the least, making the party open to all viewpoints.
"I think what Republicans can do is begin to change their messaging," she said. "There has to be a movement towards allowing Republicans to vote their conscience on this issue and not having a litmus test on this — especially when you have polling data that suggests 52 percent of Republicans under the age of 50 are in favor of marriage. The direction the country and the party is moving is uni-directional on this issue."
Nicolle Wallace, communications director in the President George W. Bush's second term and a senior McCain-Palin campaign adviser, is a supporter of marriage equality who sees a middle ground for the party.
"There are good and decent and intelligent and enlightened and academic and important people who simply disagree with those of us on the side of marriage equality," she said. "So, no matter how the Supreme Court rules, there will be good and decent and intelligent people, Republicans, who simply disagree. But, for people who are open to the legal argument that the Constitution … doesn't allow for a separate class of people to be denied all the benefits of marriage, it does give them another opportunity. There have been a couple in the last few months — the oral arguments, the [Supreme Court] brief that [Ken Mehlman] headed — but, it's another opportunity to, maybe with the weight of a Supreme Court ruling, try to appeal to anyone else who is still open to evolving their position on gay marriage."
And, to those people, Wallace makes a passionate case for equal treatment of same-sex couples by the federal government through a discussion of military families.
"I think military families are particularly difficult ones to explain away for Republicans because we pride ourselves on really understanding the military way of life, caring for men and women who serve. But if you deny a same-sex couple serving in the military, with children, access to all the benefits of marriage — financial benefits, the right to live on the base and be part of the military community — I just don't know how we explain that away through a policy debate that's real and affects people's lives in a very real way," she said.
She called this the sticking point that forces the issue: "the human toll of denying all the benefits of marriage to a certain class of people based on their sexual orientation."
Of course, Wallace is right that some will never be won over. Earlier this week, some of the most conservative organizations opposed to LGBT rights held a mixture of a protest and a news conference outside of the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign headquarters in DC.
Asked about the polling and growing support for same-sex couples' marriage rights, Peter LaBarbera, the head of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, said, "I think the Republican Party needs to look out and see how strong the support is for traditional values in the minority communities, and that's where they need to go."
There are more moderate voices in the party who remain opposed to marriage for same-sex couples, but few of them are speaking up publicly, preferring to allow the issue to simmer as they sit in the background.
Lundry spouted numbers quickly, however, and said that all of the statistics — in all demographic groups — point away from the Republican Party's current position and toward urging a more inclusive view.
"Republicans are still holdouts; only about a third support same-sex marriage — but that's still growth of about 18 percentage points in the last nine years. And then, you look at the generational divide. Look at evangelical millennials — people born between 1980 and 2000: 64 percent of evangelical millennials support same-sex marriage. Among Republicans under 50, 52 percent support same-sex marriage. In terms of what the country wants, I think it's pretty safe to say that the country would like to see same-sex marriage legalized," he said.
Regarding the federal definition of marriage contained in DOMA, which Republicans have defended in the courts, Lundry noted it gets worse. "With DOMA specifically, the numbers are even stronger. You've got 62 percent of battleground state voters who say, 'You know what, if a state recognizes same-sex marriage, then the federal government should acknowledge that state's decision and grant them the same benefits as heterosexual couples.'"
Ana Navarro, who served as the Hispanic co-chair for the McCain campaign in 2008 and the Huntsman campaign in 2012, says that if the court strikes down the federal definition of marriage in DOMA, it could be a gift to Republicans.
"I don't hear many elected Republicans talking about the political implications of the Court overturning DOMA. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the best thing that could happen to Republicans is for the Court to take this hot potato off the hands of politicians," she told BuzzFeed. "Bottom line is this, you can't pray away equality for gays."
Lundry was just as blunt. "This is a tidal wave of public opinion, and it's headed directly for the Republican Party. We need to figure out exactly how we can reassess where we stand on this as a party in fitting with our conservative principles — and I think that there is a very straightforward conservative case for same-sex marriage," he said.
"I think that there are plenty of conservatives who are re-evaluating their stance on this, and rightfully so. I personally believe that people should be doing it for the right moral and ideological reasons because I think it's the right thing to do, but there's also a much more practical and results-oriented rubric here that says, 'These numbers show overwhelming support; it's just getting bigger every year.'"
Wallace described the progress that has been made as part of a process the party needed to go through on the issue. "I think, as a policy matter, it's been a healthy process for our party to hear from such respected voices as Ken Mehlman and Sen. Portman and Steve Hadley and Meg Whitman — all these people who have a very large megaphone in the Republican Party have used it to talk about their own evolution on this issue, and I think it's been very, very healthy for our party," she said, noting that there needs to be room in the party for people like Wallace, who have "evolved" on the issue.
Wallace was one of the Republican signatories to the Supreme Court brief led by Mehlman that laid out the conservative constitutional case for marriage equality in the other Supreme Court case — the one challenging California's Proposition 8 that was argued at the Supreme Court by Ted Olson, who served as President George W. Bush's top appellate lawyer. Wallace said the brief is so compelling, in fact, that she doesn't expect there to be conservative blowback if the court does strike down the laws.
"Because the argument that was laid out in the brief was based on the way a conservative legal framework ... I think it would be very difficult for Republicans in Congress to attack the court to claim that this isn't the role of the court. I can't even imagine what the argument would be against the court should they strike down DOMA on constitutional grounds that it denies equal protection, which is the case that we made," she said.
Hoover agreed, saying, "I think Republicans understand that that's a losing issue. I think the consensus is becoming clearer and clearer that the part of the party that believed this was a successful wedge issue in 2004, they have been — first of all, they're smaller, they've been proven wrong, and they have less influence and power of persuasion over the agenda right now."
Defending the House Republicans who have been defending DOMA, she added, "The House leadership is savvy enough about this. They understand. … I see [House Speaker John] Boehner pulling the pragmatic move, not the hail-mary, ideological move to keep the party together."
That said, Hoover does see difficulties for Republicans and other opponents of marriage equality in the wake of a court ruling striking down DOMA. "It won't solve everything. In fact, it will probably in the short-term make things a bit messier, which, for the federalist wing of the party, that wants this issue to be a state issue and to be resolved by the states, what striking down the third section of DOMA [will do] is throw things to the states. But there's going to need to be a federal solution because you're going to have married couples in New York be treated radically differently than non-married couples in New Jersey right across the river," she said. "If you're a Republican who wants states to decide, this is a good thing because now it puts more emphasis on state work. But it doesn't solve the problem; it doesn't take the issue off the table."
Despite the difficulties — and the fact that, at this point, only two Republican senators publicly support marriage equality — Wallace remains optimistic.
"I do think it is an issue of basic fairness and the Republican Party has always, eventually come down on the side of fairness and equality, and in most cases, led the charge," she said. "We are a party that holds out the institution of marriage and reveres the institution of marriage, and I think we'll eventually see marriage as something that all families should have access too."
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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