Early this summer, if the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the whole country will recognize same-sex marriage, it could be delivering a huge gift to the Republicans.
Doesn't seem possible? You're right; it's at least counter-intuitive. Social conservatives have been railing against gay marriage for plenty of election cycles now, and political strategists have deployed the matter to arouse activists and even nudge fence-sitters to the polls. In November 2004, millions of conservative voters who might not have bothered to turn out for George W. Bush's sake were enticed into the voting booths in 11 states -- including the vital swing state of Ohio -- to vote down same-sex marriage.
No question the alarm-bell clamor against gay marriage, and gay rights in general, has helped Republicans win elections by bestirring the base. But that clock may be winding down.
These things often happen first in California, of course, and at the state's recent Republican Party convention -- a party whose platform declares homosexuality to be unacceptable -- things did.
In an adroitly managed Sunday morning vote, Republicans at the convention voted for a first: They granted an official charter to the Log Cabin Republican club. The state's pioneering gay GOP organization was formed in 1977 to oppose the Briggs Initiative to ban gays from teaching in public schools (the measure lost, in part because Ronald Reagan opposed it in an op-ed in the Herald-Examiner).
Sunday's vote could open the door for gay Republicans across the country, where the GOP discreetly welcomes Log Cabin volunteer shoe leather and money but doesn't want to make them official. Last month, Log Cabin groups were not welcome as sponsors for CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee annual gathering. And, as my colleague Seema Mehta reported, last year's Texas state party convention wouldn't so much as let two gay Republican groups set up booths.
And yet, as an issue guaranteed to rouse voters to a frenzy of opposition, gay rights is beginning to lose steam. As of now, 37 states have legalized same-sex marriage, mostly through court or legislative decisions. A Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage would take the heat off Republican leaders who could, disingenuously or not, tell their fervently anti-gay followers, "Hey, we tried to stop it, but you know that liberal court…."
This week, a Republican group called Project Right Side presented more than 300 signatories on its petition to the Supreme Court arguing for same-sex marriage, including high-profile Republicans such as Rudy Giuliani, one of the Koch brothers, and Army general, the former head of homeland security and onetime California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.
And how would all that be an advantage for the GOP? Because even though the battle against gay rights brought out droves of religious conservative voters, it also kept moneyed and influential gay Republicans away from party activities. Why, people asked of them -- and perhaps they asked themselves -- would you persist in wanting to belong to a political party that officially despises you? So Democrats wound up with a lock on gay rights, gay support and gay political contributions.
But now, do the numbers: Republicans' policies have alienated millions of black voters, Latino voters, women voters, young voters and gay voters. In five years' time, census projections show that the majority of children in this country will not be white. The demographic handwriting is on the wall, and Republicans in California, who have not won a statewide race in nine years, are reading it. They're looking wistfully at an open Senate seat, a governor's chair, a changing electorate. They would be foolish not to think, "We have to do things differently."
As Mehta's story noted, whatever the GOP state platform says about homosexuality, the Log Cabin GOP luau, with its rainbow leis and merry mai tais, is always the hottest party ticket at the Republican convention. Soon, and perhaps thanks to the Supreme Court and California's GOP, many canny Republicans can start thinking that it may be time to invite gays and their issues into the GOP's party.