CPAC, Oregon And The Calm Before The Storm Over Same-Sex Marriage In The GOP

  @ericbrownzzz on March 11 2014 6:04 AM
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Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. REUTERS

A group of Oregon Republicans endorsed a referendum for same-sex marriage in the state over the weekend, but rather than being a sign of the GOP’s acceptance, it could be the start of another struggle dividing the party. 

This November, Oregon is expected to vote on a ballot measure legalizing same-sex marriage. At the Dorchester Conference, Oregon’s annual conservative gathering, Republican attendees voted more than 2-1 to endorse the proposal. At first glance, it sounds like the mainstream GOP may finally be on its way to embracing LGBT Americans, but a closer look shows that’s not the case. 

In fact, these Oregon Republicans backed the marriage initiative chiefly because their more socially conservative members boycotted the Dorchester Conference, instead holding a “freedom rally” scheduled on short notice the same day. Frustrated by the Dorchester Conference’s consideration of the same-sex marriage proposal as well as its founder’s pro-choice history, many conservatives decided they’d rather have their own meeting instead.

"It sends a message that these issues are still important," Teresa Harke of the Oregon Family Council told Oregon Live. "We can't desert our principles.”

Other Oregon conservatives simply don’t see causes like stopping same-sex marriage as their principles at all. Instead, they focus on financial issues and fear that such cultural wedge issues will only drive potential Republican voters away from the party of Ronald Reagan. 

"I believe this is a wedge issue that forces young people into the Democratic party's hands," Jacob Vandever, a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, told Oregon Live

As it stands, these are the two prevailing Republican opinions on gay rights. While many believe deeply in conservative notions of sexuality and marriage, other, predominantly younger, members of the party simply don’t care or believe that same-sex marriage isn’t an issue worth getting riled up over. 

Before too long, these two strains of Republicanism are likely to come to a head. For now, most conservative groups are desperately trying to avoid the issue, but their silence speaks volumes. For instance, one of the biggest signs that a storm is brewing over same-sex marriage in the Republican Party comes from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which was held in Washington last week. 

In 2011, CPAC nearly came to blows over GOProud, a conservative LGBT organization that co-sponsored the conference in preceding years. Social conservatives were so outraged over GOProud’s involvement that the group was uninvited while conservative leaders set up panels decrying the ruin same-sex marriage will bring upon America.

Only a few years later, however, things have changed at CPAC. The 2014 schedule may have devoted time to climate change skeptics, but no panels were held on same-sex marriage or its consequences in America, despite the nearly daily headlines on the issue. In fact, no speaker at the conference made a direct reference to the issue. GOProud was even invited back, though co-founder Jimmy LaSalvia had abandoned the group and registered as an independent by then. 

Once again, this could seem like a show of solidarity with LGBT Americans, but it’s not. It’s a refusal to engage in the issue.

GOPround was allowed to participate this year, for instance, but they didn’t get a panel of their own. Nor was anyone else allowed to address gay marriage for fear of offending one side or the other. Some speakers, like former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, made vague references to traditional values (or, as he called them, “currently unfashionable stances on cultural and limited-government issues”), but overall, the conference barely commented on same-sex marriage.

For most Republicans, it’s simply better to ignore the issue than tackle it head on, but those who feel strongly on either side are going to come to blows eventually, largely along generational divides. As federal courts continue to strike down bans on same-sex marriage en-masse, sooner or later a 2014 or 2016 candidate is going to have to speak out. When that happens, Republican voters are going to have to take sides between social conservatives and libertarian fiscal conservatives.

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