GOP Urged to Rethink Gay Marriage
Strategist Who Handled McCain Campaign Says Party Risks Becoming 'Sectarian'

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 18, 2009

Adding a prominent Republican voice to the ranks of those supporting same-sex marriage, the man who managed Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign yesterday warned members of his party that continued opposition on the issue could turn the GOP into a "sectarian" party.

Steve Schmidt, a California political strategist, has long held more moderate views on social issues than do many top GOP officials. Yesterday, he used a speech in front of the gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans to urge the party to shift its views on same-sex marriage. Otherwise, he said, it will continue losing voters who are younger than 35 or who live outside the South.

"For the party to be seen as anti-gay, that is injurious to its candidates in places like California and Washington," Schmidt said.

He added: "Republicans should reexamine the extent to which we are defined by positions on issues that I don't believe are among our values and that put us at odds with what I expect will [be] over time, if not a consensus view, then the view of a substantial majority of voters."

His comments come as Republicans are questioning the party's strategy after its drubbing in the November elections, and they follow several recent successes for gay-marriage advocates. Iowa's Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage this month, while the Vermont legislature overrode the veto of a GOP governor to authorize same-sex marriage there.

Lawmakers in Maine, New Hampshire and New Jersey are debating similar measures, and New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D) announced Thursday his support for such a bill. The D.C. Council voted this month to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Pushing the party to reconsider the issue are a handful of GOP figures, including Meghan McCain, the 24-year-old daughter of last November's Republican standard-bearer. She will speak tonight at a dinner for the Log Cabin Republicans, whose name reflects the birthplace of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. McCain and her mother, Cindy, attended a Log Cabin reception last night at the home of former congressman Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) who was one of the few openly gay members of Congress during his tenure.

A spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said during his presidential run that he opposes same-sex marriage, declined to comment.

Other Republicans disagreed strongly with Schmidt, noting that an initiative defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman passed in California, a state President Obama easily won.

"We've seen over and over people come out and support marriage between a man and woman," said Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, a District-based conservative activist group. "It absolutely doesn't threaten the election of Republicans. The campaign [on gay marriage in California] won the support of Republicans, independents and some Democrats."

The push for same-sex marriage has not been backed at the national level by leaders of either party. Obama said during his presidential campaign that he supports civil unions but that marriage should be reserved for male-female couples. He has said little about the recent move toward gay-marriage initiatives.

Congressional Democrats have not said they will push the issue. Some prominent officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), support same-sex marriage, while others, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), say marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Many Republicans oppose both civil unions and gay marriage, and several key party leaders, including Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a potential 2012 candidate, condemned the Iowa decision. Responding to Schmidt's comments, Trevor Francis, Steele's spokesman, noted that opposition to gay marriage is in the party's platform but said, "We have a big, broad and diverse party."

Schmidt pointed out that Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), who leads one of the most conservative states, has recently come out for civil unions. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who opposed the initiative that passed in his state in November, has backed efforts to overturn it.

"I know mine is a minority view among Republicans, and I don't honestly expect our party will reverse in the very near term its opposition to same-sex marriage," Schmidt said. "Nor do I see support from it from a strong majority of the general public."

Schmidt added that his lesbian sister's relationship with another woman helped change his views on the matter.

Public opinion remains narrowly against same-sex marriage. A Newsweek poll in December found 55 percent of people opposed to it, compared with 39 percent who support it. A scant majority (51 percent) of people ages 18 to 29 back same-sex marriage.

Gay Republicans at the Log Cabin annual conference, held at the Westin Hotel in downtown Washington, said they appreciated Schmidt's support but added that they expect limited progress on the issue.

"People under 40, they don't care," said Martin Sokoll, a trustee of the group who lives in Iowa. "It's absolutely age-related. It's going to change as those folks who are older die off."

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