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Will Desire to Gain Voters Prompt Iowa GOP to Change Course on Gay Marriage – Or at Least Muzzle Activists?

A cultural war is taking place within the Republican Party. In Iowa, where gay marriage opponents and social conservatives Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have come out winners in the first-in-the-nation caucus, the conversation is critically important.


The first article in a two-part series. Read Part 2, Fight Against Gay Marriage? Not if Iowa GOP Wants Young Voters, on Iowa City Patch.

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Troubled by polling data that shows traditional positions on issues like same-sex marriage are costing elections, the Republican Party is going through what its leaders politely call a period of introspection.

More brutally, it's a question of whether the GOP can hold its nose and keep quiet on same-sex marriage and other social issues in order to welcome in a new group of young voters whose priorities center more on fiscal values than family values.

The conversation is critically important – and difficult – in Iowa, where the results of first-in-the-nation caucuses and the Straw Poll leading up to the early presidential contest are increasingly criticized as reflecting a deeply fractured state party that hasn't produced any successful national standard-bearers recently.

Gay marriage critics Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in 2012 and 2008, respectively, in both case submarining past a better funded and more moderate Mitt Romney. Both dropped out of the race when their campaigns failed to gain traction with a majority of American voters who describe themselves in polls as increasingly comfortable with the idea of gay families, with mixed feelings on other social value positions.

Iowa may have one more chance to get it right – or at least right of center.

“There’s some concern Iowa could lose the caucuses because we push people too far into ideological corners,” said Mike Mahaffey, a former state Republican chairman. “2016 is important for the future of the caucuses in the state of Iowa.”

Gay Marriage a Non-Starter Issue Among Young Voters

If they needed one after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s crushing loss in November, the post-election Gallup Poll was a wake-up call for Republicans.

More than half of Americans – 53 percent – think that same-sex marriages should be recognized as valid, according to Gallup. That’s up from 40 percent in 2008, which was up from 35 percent in 1999.

Among young voters aged 18-29, 73 percent support same-sex marriage.

Almost a third of them were Republicans. The poll also showed that 22 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) voters supported Romney in the November election.

The poll clearly shows the GOP needs more voters like University of Iowa student Tim O’Hara, 22, who voted for Romney, but also supports gay marriage. He argued that the GOP’s anti-gay-marriage stance doesn't make him a Democratic voter by default.

However, O'Hara thinks the GOP could pick up some moderate voters by dialing back sharp political rhetoric and said he “wishes they would stop” making the issue a priority.

“It doesn’t push me away from the party because I don’t want to vote for a liberal who’s going to make a federal law about it,” said O’Hara, a senior from Oak Park, IL.

David Yepsen, a political analyst, concurred with that thinking.

“It’s not just that Republicans are losing the votes of gays and lesbians, it’s a porthole issue to the votes of younger Americans,” said Yepsen, who covered politics for the Des Moines Register for 34 years and now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

Yepsen said Republicans did poorly with people under the age of 24, those voters who are much more comfortable with gay marriage and gay rights.

“It’s an age thing," Yepsen said. "One reason it became acceptable in the U.S. military in the space of about 10 years is that younger troops said they didn’t have a problem with it. In the older days, they did.”

“I’m a firm believer that all the right things happen for all the wrong reasons. ... These are conversations they wouldn’t be having if Mitt Romney had won,” Yepsen said.

As a political issue, gay marriage is a non-starter with many young Republicans and Libertarian-leaning Independents, said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

"Speaking in general, they're concerned with more economic things than the social stuff: the economy, getting a job, things of that nature,” Hagle said. "It's just not as important as a major issue that's going to make them vote for one candidate over another."

GOP voter Creighton Cox of Urbandale, where he’s a city councilman, said religious convictions about issues like marriage have no place in the political discourse and shouldn’t be used to “prevent services … to a couple that wants to get married.”

He thinks the Republican party needs to abandon opposition to gay marriage as a priority issue. “The economy, fiscal responsibility, education and public safety should be the things the GOP should focus on,” Cox said. “Inclusion, not exclusion, will help foster a stronger GOP.”

Stability and Other Family Values

That’s exactly the message two Republican strategists – including the now openly gay architect of President George W. Bush’s successful 2004 campaign – brought to Iowa last week.

Ken Mehlman, who ran Bush’s campaign, and David Kochel, Romney’s Iowa campaign strategist, made the case that it’s politically pragmatic to ease up on social issues, such as stopping the struggle against legalized gay marriage. Not only that, they argued, it’s completely in keeping with conservative values such as personal liberty and limiting government.

Former state legislator Jeff Angelo of Ames, whose Iowa Republicans for Freedom group brought Mehlman and Kochel to Iowa, said many of the same arguments conservatives cite in their opposition to gay marriage can be used to support it – even the “family values” morality and religious freedom arguments.

Angelo, a same-sex marriage opponent during a 12-year stint in the Iowa Senate that ended in 2009, said his own change of heart came about when he realized he had gay friends and relatives with whom he agreed on many other issues.

Read More: Click the link to read Angelo's 2011 Des Moines Register column, "Why my View on Same-sex Marriage Has Changed."

“It becomes harder to say no to that,” he said. “It begins to push people away from the party rather than bring people in.”

As the party for freedom and limited government, “we do not want government to tell same gender couples that they cannot be married,” Angelo said.

He also said that monogamous family relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are stabilizing factors in society and government shouldn’t want to stop that.

“Gay men and women are wanting to form stable families,” he said. “We need to promote that for the good of our culture.”

He thinks the conversation will move the party forward.

“In the end if you want to win elections you have to have more people who support your party than the opposition party,” Angelo said. “Our party is in a state of contraction right now, not expansion.”

Pragmatic or Betrayal of GOP Principles?

As Mehlman and Kochel crisscross the state with Iowa Republicans for Freedom, they haven’t been shown the door, exactly, but neither have they been given a robust welcome.

According to a Des Moines Register report, “several Republicans ducked out the back door” after a private reception with Mehlman at the Des Moines gathering.

Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said some Republicans think softening on social issues like gay marriage would be a tactical error and a betrayal of its principles.

“The GOP is the party that opposes gay marriage,” Schmidt said “If people want to vote for candidates who support gay marriage, there is the Democratic Party.

“I don’t see many Republicans changing their mind on gay marriage, so it’s probably not a winning position of the party,” he said.

Read related blogs on Patch: Click the links to read One Iowa Executive Director Donna Red Wing's blogs, The Conservative Case for Marriage Equality and Our Journey is Not Complete; With a Few Words Obama Changed Everything

Schmidt suggested, however, that Republicans may want to muzzle themselves a bit on the issue of gay marriage.

“The Iowa GOP probably doesn't need to emphasize opposition to gay marriage and put it high on the burner because it is not among the top five or 10 issues that voters are concerned about,” he said. “It does not, however, have to ‘abandon’ its position on gay marriage.”

Most observers think that convincing a state party whose disarray is epitomized by the fact that supporters of Ron Paul’s presidential bid lead the state GOP machinery – as disparate a group of voters as can be collected anywhere, Mahaffey noted – is going to be a heavy lift.

Yepsen agreed.

“There’s a conflict going on inside the Republican Party,” he said. “It used to be moderates vs. conservatives. Now it’s conservatives vs. conservatives.”

Party activists like Mehlman, Kochel and Angelo calling for moderation on same-sex marriage are trying to make the pill a little easier to swallow by telling their flock they don’t have to give up their principles. However, making a priority of anti-gay views means other Republican principles – smaller government, fiscal restraint and a strong defense – are losing at the ballot box.

Embracing gay marriage – or at least not being vocal about their opposition to it – isn’t the only thing Republicans need to do to bring more voters under their tent.

How to Gain Voters?

The Republican party could probably make up a bigger share of its deficit at the polls by loosening its opposition to certain immigration reforms, Mahaffey said, pointing out that some of the GOP’s most ardent supporters – business leaders – believe Republicans need a more inclusive position on immigration.

Republican losses were also significant among minority voters.

“As a small-town lawyer, I have a lot of clients – dairy farmers, construction companies, different kinds of industries – who rely on Hispanic workers,” Mahaffey said. “I’m not saying illegal workers, but everyone from the U.S. Chamber to farm organizations is talking about how we’re going to deal with this immigration issue.

“A significant portion of the Republican Party is more sympathetic for business and other reasons to having some kind of comprehensive immigration reforms,” Mahaffey said. “I know, because I talk to them.”

Yepsen thinks more moderate positions on gay marriage and immigration will become part of the GOP rhetoric as a matter of political pragmatism, if not on the issues’ merits.

“I’m a firm believer that all the right things happen for all the wrong reasons,” he said. “Republicans are having a period of introspection, and that includes gay marriage and immigration. These are conversations they wouldn’t be having if Mitt Romney had won.”

MONDAY:
Tomorrow, we’ll hear from students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa about their feelings on same-sex marriage as a political issue.

(Iowa Patch editors Deb Belt, Brian Morelli, Ashlee Kieler, Stephen Schmidt, Jessica Miller, Alison Gowans and Megan VerHelst contributed to this report.)

maxine weimer February 05, 2013 at 04:57 PM
Milford.....I apologize because I am just confused. I understand the consequences and behavioral characteristics that you speak about and for the most part I agree with you, but I also want everyone to be happy and in a healthy relationship with someone they care about and that cares about them back. I don't by any means pretend to know what the answer is, all I can do is say how I personally feel about certain issues. I guess it boils down to whatever the laws are I have to abide by, but I feel like this gay movement is such a big trend right now. I don't know if they are experimenting with the concept because it is so popular, or if its because gays and lesbians feel more confident and just don't care now about public opinion. Also the aids virus is on the rise again and that is really scarey.
Jon Trouten February 05, 2013 at 05:10 PM
I am a 41-year-old man. I've been with my husband since 1994. I've known I'm gay since the early 80s. That is some trend. I'm HIV-negative and have always been STD negative. I've never had negative physical affects from my relationship. Promoting marriage in the gay community promotes monogamy. Those who practice monogamy are less likely to get AIDS. They're less likely to acquire STDs. Those who are married are emotionally better adjusted. We've seen trends that states that permit marriage equality actually have the lowest divorce rates. For *these* reasons, I urge Iowans to lay off the gays and lets us share in the rights, responsibilities, and protections of marriage alongside our heterosexual neighbors. Oh, lesbians share the lowest AIDS transmission rates. In fact, those who don't have other high risk factors (such as IV drug use or sexual activity with men) actually have almost no risk of AIDS transmission. Just something more to consider.
maxine weimer February 05, 2013 at 05:48 PM
Honestly I still don't know how Obama won this last election. He made so many promises that he has broken and yet the people fell for it again. And now he is lying again. He said he would not raise taxes on anyone who earned less than 250,000, and now he said just on last friday that he is going to have to raise taxes on the middle class to help bring down the national debt. What is it about that man that makes people believe him even when they know he is lying? And when he does lie to them, they act like it is ok. I am just sick of this administration and all their BS that I can't stand it anymore.........ok I feel alittle better now
maxine weimer February 05, 2013 at 06:08 PM
Jon, I don't want you to take my comments the wrong way. I am in favor of all people having a long, wonderful relationship with anyone they can find that with. I believe it is more healthy to have someone to share life with. And I don't want to sound negative about any gay or lesbian union. I am just not sure that "marriage" is the right word to use. It has always been called marriage when one man and one woman unite their relationship. And then it seems like gay people always called their formality a "union." I guess my question to you is, why do gay people want to now call it a marriage if they were content with calling it a union before? It dosen't make it any less of a unity between two people does it? Its kinda like people used to say "black" instead of "African American." They both mean the same thing, but using different verbage. What is the big deal as long as you have the same rights and the same laws reguarding the rules? Help me understand.
Jon Trouten February 05, 2013 at 06:27 PM
Maxine: It hasn't always been one man and one woman. It still isn't always one man and one woman. The Bible itself shows us that marriage sometimes has more than two spouses. We haven't always called our relationships "unions". Back when Vermont's supreme court told the state that there was no reason to deny us marriage licenses, the legislature came up with civil unions to provide us with separate but (mostly) equal relationships. We were seeking marriage then. We were seeking marriage in Hawaii when that state's supreme court agreed with us that our marriages weren't unconstitutional (the legislature then constitutionally banned us). We were seeking marriage back as early as the 60s when the Metropolitan Community Church tried getting our marriages legalized. We didn't create civil unions. Heterosexual legislators created civil unions for us to prevent us from getting married. I am married. I would prefer to remain married. We have learned over the past decade that civil unions and domestic partnerships actually aren't the same as marriage but with a different name. They found this to be the case in Vermont and in California and in New Jersey. Businesses and hospitals don't treat CUs and DPs equal to marriage even when the law tells them they have to. People and institutions understand marriage and the familial relationship of married partners. Instead of trying to create something new to call married gays, just call us married.

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