March 15, 2013 -- Have the past few weeks been a tipping point for the Republican Party on the issue of gay rights?
Several top Republicans have shifted their tone and position on issues like gay marriage and benefits for same-sex couples, which the GOP's social conservative base has staunchly opposed for years. But it remains unclear whether Republican officials who have changed their mind on gay rights will be able to bring the party's base with them.
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On Friday, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) became perhaps the highest-profile Republican elected official to come out in support of gay marriage while in office.
Portman, who was in the running to become Mitt Romney's running mate last fall, shared that he changed his position after his son revealed to him he was gay.
"I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn't deny them the opportunity to get married," Portman wrote in an op-ed for the Columbus Dispatch.
Portman has never been a loud critic of gay marriage, but his voting record reflected his views. He voted the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the 1990s and a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman in 2004. But he said that his son's admission two years ago caused him to reconsider his views.
"Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing [my wife] Jane and I have shared for 26 years," he wrote.
In an interview with CNN, Portman said he told Romney about his son's sexual orientation during the vice-presidential vetting process and that he consulted with former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian.
"He was a good person to talk to because he also was surprised by the news, in that case, you know, his wonderful daughter, who he loves very much. And it forced him to rethink the issue too, and over time, he changed his view on it," Portman said. "I followed his advice. You know, I followed my heart."
Portman, however, isn't ready to back federal action on gay marriage. He said that the states should be able to decide whether they want to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples.
"I believe change should come about through the democratic process in the states," Portman wrote in the Dispatch.
Even this week, Portman was not the only high-profile Republican to reconsider their stance on gay rights. GOP mega-donor Foster Friess, who helped fund socially-conservative stalwart Rick Santorum's 2012 bid for president, explained that he backs certain domestic benefits for same-sex couples. Federal benefits cannot be extended to same-sex couples under the Defense of Marriage Act.
"I think it's unfair that people can't give assets to whoever they want. When I die, my assets can go to my wife," he said in an interview with BuzzFeed. "And a gay person — you ought to have a system where maybe you can just say, 'You can give your assets to anybody you want.'"
Friess' own beliefs have also been shaped by a personal connection: his brother-in-law is gay.
"I just know that the people that I meet who are gay, including my brother-in-law and his partner, and my wife is very active in the art community, and we meet a lot of people that are gay, I think, number one, it's our responsibility to love them," he said. "That's the bottom line."
Friess did not say whether he would support gay marriage, but he said that the Republican Party should show a greater level of respect to gays and lesbians.
"When you talk about the party, that's the problem because there isn't any unified message," Friess said. "You've got people who are gay-bashers, who forget that these are human beings that need love just like all of us need love. We have to be sensitive to that."
The shift comes at a time when public opinion, and many others in the Republican Party have begun to move in favor of gay-rights.
More than 100 well-known Republicans, including top Romney campaign adviser Beth Myers, signed a legal brief last month that urges the Supreme Court to grant same-sex couples the right to wed under the Constitution. Former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) have backed gay marriage as well.
Public opinion has also shifted in favor of gay marriage in the past two years. Fifty-one percent of Americans backed gay marriage in a November ABC News/Washington Post poll, and majorities have supported it in five straight polls since 2011. So, while personal connections may have sparked GOP officials to change their tune, it's also a sign of the changing times.
"Today twice as many people support marriage for same-sex couples as when the Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law 17 years ago by President Bill Clinton, who now opposes it," Portman wrote in the Dispatch. "With the overwhelming majority of young people in support of allowing gay couples to marry, in some respects the issue has become more generational than partisan."
Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of the gay Republican group GOProud, put it more bluntly.
"There are a few in our movement who just don't like gay people," he said during a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) about gay rights on Thursday. "And in 2013, that's just not OK."
But that doesn't mean that the Republican Party and the conservative movement is ready to just abandon its long-held stances on gay rights. Majorities of self-described Democrats and independents back gay marriage, but only 31 percent of Republicans support it, while two-thirds say they oppose it, according to the ABC/Post poll.
A full-tilt embrace of gay marriage could alienate many of the social conservative voters that the Republican Party depends on in elections.
"You're gonna have to show me how you're gonna replace those 30 million social conservatives and evangelicals that are gonna leave the party" if Republicans back gay marriage," National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg said on the panel.
A bellwether of the GOP's struggle with gay rights was evident at CPAC on Thursday. Even though LaSalvia was able to participate on a panel, organizers decided not to formally invite his group to the annual confab.
While Republicans grapple with the issues, more may adopt the position of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Rubio remains an opponent of gay marriage, but said during his speech to CPAC that states should decide their own marriage laws.
"Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot," Rubio said.
But as conservative writers like Philip Klein and Matt Lewis noted, that's still a sign that the gay-marriage debate has shifted. Just nine years ago, President George W. Bush was pushing for a federal amendment that would ban gay marriage, which became the de facto position of the GOP.
"[Yet,] the debate has shifted dramatically in the intervening years. That's why it was eye-opening to hear Rubio['s comments]," Klein wrote.