The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans outside of Washington are dropping their opposition to gay marriage. Will the national party follow along?

Developments across the country in recent days signal a building momentum within the Republican Party to end the GOP's long-standing opposition to same-sex marriage, with activists arguing that doing so will allow GOP candidates to focus more on popular economic themes in this year's elections and help expand the party's appeal ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

The change is being spurred far away from Washington by state party officials and local GOP operatives who believe that it no longer makes political sense to block attempts to expand marriage rights to gay men and lesbians.

Illinois Republicans last weekend ousted party officials who disagreed with a former state party chairman's support for same-sex marriage. Nevada Republicans just days ago removed language from the party platform regarding whether gay men and lesbians should marry. A new fundraising committee supporting pro-gay marriage GOP congressional candidates announced last week that it raised more than $2 million in the first quarter from wealthy Republican donors who support gay rights. Even Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an outspoken social conservative critic of gay rights, said in a recent BuzzFeed interview that “I think we need to concede that there’s been a real shift of public opinion on marriage."

Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, agreed that “a tectonic shift is taking place in the Republican Party on marriage equality.” He cited several polls showing shifting support and the growing number of lawmakers in favor of dropping opposition even as top leaders remain opposed. “For the Republican hierarchy it's a very straightforward question,” Sainz said. “How can they attract the next generation of voters and not support an issue young people have made their minds up on?”

Half of all Americans believe that gay men and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released in March. But Republicans and conservatives are about the only demographic or political group still opposed to same-sex marriage. Fifty-four percent of Republicans oppose legal gay marriage, while 40 percent approve it, according to the poll. That compares with 70 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of independents who support it.

But a recent Pew Research poll suggested a stark generational divide among Republicans on the subject. More than six in 10 Republicans and "Republican leaners" under age 30 favor same-sex marriage, while just 35 percent oppose it. By contrast, just 27 percent of Republicans ages 50 and older favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, the Pew poll found.

Those findings encourage Tyler Deaton, a 28-year old GOP activist in Concord, N.H. He’s leading Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, a national network that hopes to raise $1 million by the summer of 2016 and convince the Republican National Committee to drop “anti-gay language” from the national GOP party platform during the presidential nominating convention.

“I think we’re going to be successful, I think that this is the right time, that if the party wants to grow, then for the party to reach new voters, this is a necessary change,” Deaton said. “I think we’ll have a new platform in 2016 that is much more inclusive to gay people.”

Nationally, none of the Republican governors or lawmakers mentioned as possible presidential candidates publicly supports same-sex marriage. Ten Republican senators voted with Democrats last year to ban workplace discrimination against gay and transgender workers, but House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other top Republicans leaders oppose the Senate bill and same-sex marriage.

However, several party elders, including former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, have spoken out in recent months in support of same-sex marriage

Currently, the national Republican Party platform states that "we believe that marriage, the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard, a goal to stand for, encourage, and promote through laws governing marriage." The next sentence reads: "We embrace the principle that all Americans should be treated with respect and dignity."

RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday that “the principles of the party were reaffirmed at last year’s convention and are what currently guide us.”

But if Deaton achieves his goal, it’ll help fulfill one of the recommendations of an RNC-commissioned report published last year that faulted Republicans for not doing enough to attract younger voters.

“There is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays -- and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be,” the report said. The authors recommended that Republicans “must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”

Gay rights and same-sex marriage rank nowhere near the top of voter concerns this year, with most focused instead on economic and health-care matters. That's part of the reason why officials in Illinois and Nevada believed that they could take a stand in support of same-sex marriage. They figured that by removing the issue from the political conversation, GOP candidates can woo independent swing voters with an economic message instead of tripping up on social issues that might offend or alienate new supporters.

From a political perspective, "you have to focus on the debt and deficit and allow social issues to take a back seat," said Pat Brady, the former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.

Brady stepped down as party leader last year due to family issues, but had spent most of his tenure speaking out in support of gay men and lesbians seeking to marry. He'd seen the polls suggesting rapidly shifting public opinion and he believed that speaking out was consistent with his conservative beliefs.

"It’s a family issue -- if adults want to enter into a consensual relationship, that’s fine, the government shouldn't tell them that they shouldn't," Brady said in an interview.

Over the weekend, most Illinois Republicans agreed with Brady and voted to oust six of seven party committee leaders who had called for Brady's removal because of his stance on same-sex marriage.

Brady said he believed the ouster signaled that most of his party colleagues now get it. "I think you have to be more tolerant both in tone and message than we have been in the last 10 years. We need more people voting for us," he said.

That’s the same stance that about 600 Nevada Republicans took this month when they gathered for their annual convention and agreed to strip the state party platform of any mention of gay marriage and abortion.

Dan Schwartz, the state party finance chairman, said the backlash has been minimal and confined to only a few conservatives who've blasted the party by using social media. The decision had nothing to do with money or with improving the party's image as Las Vegas bids to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, he said. Instead, he cited the libertarian streak of many Nevada Republicans, many of whom are supporting famed cattle rancher Cliven Bundy, who is fighting the federal government's decision to boot his cattle from federally protected land.

"People here don’t like to be told what to do," Schwartz said. "We don't want the government's hand in our wallet and we don’t want the government in our bedrooms."

"Our objective is to nominate candidates that will win elections and social issues just don’t belong in our platform," he added. "We’re hoping to win big in November and we don’t think this will hurt us."

Back in New Hampshire, Deaton marveled at how Republican activists were taking it upon themselves to change the way the GOP talks about and deals with gay marriage. "It's happening spontaneously, it’s happening organically," he said.

Deaton was especially encouraged by New Mexico College Republicans, who agreed in January to drop language opposed to same-sex marriage from their platform.

Brandon Aragon, head of the group, said the decision to drop the issue was settled over a series of e-mails between chapter leaders and a group meeting of about 20 members. There was no opposition.

"Just because the current party platform doesn't endorse gay marriage doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be that way,” Aragon said. “One day we are going to change that, whether it’s now or in the future."

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.