The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For nationwide same-sex marriage, the road to victory runs through the GOP

In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, one thing is clear: Republicans will determine whether same-sex marriage becomes universal in the United States.

In case there was any doubt about this, consider this: The American Civil Liberties Union is launching a multimillion-dollar campaign spearheaded by GOP strategist Steve Schmidt to enlist the support of Republicans nationwide in legalizing gay marriage on the state level.

“The key to full marriage equality now resides in the hands of Republican leadership and Republican elected officials, which is why our campaign working with Steve Schmidt and other Republican leaders becomes so critical at this crucial tipping point,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

While litigation will still play a critical role in the gay marriage fight, in the near future, state politicians will have the most influence over whether same-sex marriage is legalized.

Wednesday’s decisions, Romero said, “are certainly a tipping point in the struggle for marriage equality,  and it’s the beginning of the end of legally-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT individuals. But we’re not there yet, and now we’ve got to take it to the states, governors, legislatures and the hearts and minds of all Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike.”

Which states and GOP politicians will feel the political heat first? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is facing reelection and has shown a willingness to take on his own party, stands out as an obvious choice. And in terms of states, now that the court has cleared the way for same-sex marriages in California, there are seven that allow civil unions but ban same-sex marriage — Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Jersey. Governors and lawmakers in those states, along with the swing state of Virginia, will likely face the most immediate legal and political challenges.

In an interview, Schmidt — who made national news when he endorsed gay marriage in a March 2009 interview with the Washington Blade — said that while some states will be easier than others, "in all of these states it will require a commitment to using the political process to affect change."

Jimmy Lasalvia, president of the gay conservative group GOProud, will also be working on the ACLU's state-level campaign. He said he and his colleagues will "be talking about why it’s a conservative position to support same-sex marriage and helping (state Republicans) navigate the political reality of the climate that we’re living in."

"We are seeing, and we are working to create, an atmosphere among grass-roots conservatives where people can come out in favor of same-sex marriage and not face political repercussions," added Lasalvia, who opposes abortion and will reach out to abortion opponents as well as Tea Party activists.

Only three GOP senators have embraced same-sex marriage — Rob Portman (Ohio), Mark Kirk (Ill.)  and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — and all of those did so in the past six months. The fact that Murkowski faced such little criticism when she announced her support last week, Schmidt said, shows how quickly the political landscape is changing.

"The dirty secret of this entire debate is there are many, many Republican members of Congress who are sympathetic to and supportive of same-sex couples marrying, but just politically don’t want to put themselves out there on the limb advocating for it," Schmidt said. "In politics, there are not many people who walk out to the propeller on matters of principle. That’s what happens in the movies. That’s not what happens in the Congress typically."

The fact that many Republicans are reluctant to discuss the issue of gay marriage publicly, Schmidt noted, likely marks "an intermediate step" in the issue's evolution, after which more lawmakers will feel more comfortable embracing it.

This phenomenon was on full display Wednesday, when dozens of Democratic elected officials issued statements hailing the decision to strike down DOMA, while only a few GOP lawmakers decried it. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who declined to comment on the matter immediately after the ruling, issued a terse statement later in the morning saying  he would respect the decision.

"While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances," Boehner said.  "A robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”