By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 11:41 PM
A growing number of Republicans are breaking with the party's traditional stance to publicly state their support for same-sex marriage, a shift strategists say stems as much from demographics as from the renewed focus on economics and the "tea party" movement.
A solid majority of adults younger than 30 - about six in 10 - support the right of gay and lesbian couples to legally wed, according to a Washington Post poll in February.
But even many older Americans and self-identified social conservatives have changed their view on an issue that just six years ago galvanized voters in support of President George W. Bush's reelection.
Gay Republican activists credit the shift to the heightened attention within the GOP base to jobs and the economy, and by a desire among strategists to expand the party's appeal.
"Our nation is at a crossroads, and conservatives are trying to rally together to turn back the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda," said Chris Barron, chairman of GOProud, a gay Republican group. "That's why we've seen people like Glenn Beck saying, 'Look, same-sex marriage isn't hurting anybody.' Because he sees a need to create a broad-based conservative movement."
Beck, a tea party favorite, recently told fellow Fox talk show host Bill O'Reilly that gay marriage was not "a threat to the country" and that marriage is a religious, not a governmental, issue.
A number of prominent Republicans have been more outspoken, stating that they support same-sex marriage rights. They include Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.); "The View" commentator Elizabeth Hasselbeck; former first lady Laura Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney.
Ted Olson, solicitor general under Bush, was part of the legal team that successfully challenged Proposition 8, California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. And this week, former Republican operative Ken Mehlman disclosed that he is gay and that he will be raising money to support Olson's effort.
Also at play is the rise of the libertarian-leaning tea party movement. Many of the movement's leaders have said they oppose government intervention on marriage issues, while others say their concerns about taxation and the size of government supercede concerns over social issues.
"I come from a pretty strict upbringing in that I was raised Catholic," said Dawn Wildman, a coordinator for the California Tea Party Patriots, who said she personally opposes gay marriage. "But I have this strong belief in individualism. Not to mention that we don't have the luxury to think of the social issues right now."
One striking example of the tea party's ambivalence about social issues played out this summer in a House primary race in South Florida, where many tea party activists rallied around Donna Milo, a transgender Republican candidate who was seeking to challenge Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D). Milo came in third in the Aug. 24 primary.
Opposition to same-sex marriage has by no means disappeared in either party. President Obama has said he opposes the right of gay couples to marry, although he backs civil unions. Religiously inclined conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, whose political agenda has long overlapped with the GOP's, have continued to push back on the gains made by pro-gay marriage groups in recent years.
The issue of gay rights continues to divide the party. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter was excoriated this month by some on the religious right for agreeing to speak at Homocon, GOProud's convention, where she was billed as "the right-wing Judy Garland."
In a letter to supporters this week, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said Republicans who support same-sex marriage do it at their peril. The position "stands in direct opposition to the Party's platform, which is clear on the importance of marriage and family," he wrote. "The Party's unequivocal stand on life, marriage, and family is why many social conservatives have made the GOP their political home."
But some Republican activists say the party would be remiss if it did not consider the changing social trends, particularly among young people, who have leaned Democratic.
Some surveys show that support for same-sex marriage is growing even among young evangelical Christians. According to a 2008 study by the liberal-leaning group Faith in Public Life, young white evangelicals are more than twice as likely as older evangelicals to say that gay couples should be allowed to marry.
Mehlman's announcement this week was a dramatic example of the quiet but decisive shift that has taken place within the party. He helped orchestrate Bush's reelection strategy in 2004, which included an effort to motivate conservatives to the polls by putting same-sex marriage bans on state ballots. At the time, about two-thirds of Americans opposed the right of same-sex couples to legally marry, polls showed.
Mehlman told reporters Wednesday that he regretted not speaking out sooner.
Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group founded in the 1970s, said it is striking how far the attitude toward gays has shifted within the party in a short time. During the 1996 presidential election, Republican contender Bob Dole returned a $500 check from the group. Today, Cooper said, the political action committee has contributed to a half-dozen campaigns for the November midterm elections.
"I can't even fathom what it must have been like when you're trying to give money to a candidate, to have it shoved back in your face," Cooper said. "Now candidates say, 'Hey, we need your endorsement.' That's a far cry from where we were in the '90s."
Staff writer Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.