Senate Same-Sex Marriage Vote Is a Pivotal Moment for GOP

Youn May 2012, over 60% of North Carolina voters approved an amendment to their state constitution which defined marriage between a man and a woman as “the only domestic legal union” recognized in the state. The amendment was one of more than 25 measures on the ballot that states adopted from 1998 to 2015 banning same-sex marital relationships. Thom Tillis, the former Speaker of the House Republican Party (Republican), was one of its main backers.

A decade later, Tillis, now a U.S. In a statement, Senator Tillis said that he would support codifying the rights to same-sex marriage in federal law. This vote is expected to take place in the next few weeks.

Tillis’ switch is emblematic of a broader shift within the GOP—and the American public as a whole. According to a Gallup poll, 70% of Americans support same-sex marriage in 2021. This includes 83% of Democrats as well as 55% of Republicans. The issue was supported by only 53% of American citizens and 30% of Republicans in 2013. Experts believe public sentiment has changed for several reasons. They include increased LGBTQ representation in media, greater openness to friends and relatives, and the 2015 Supreme Court decision. Obergefell v. HodgesThat ruled that there was a constitutional right for same-sex marriage.

Obergefell The legal dispute was settled. But, after the Supreme Court overturned right to abortion in the summer, LGBTQ advocates fear that the conservative legal movement could target same-sex marriage. The Senate will vote to approve legislation that protects same-sex and interracial marriages, which may shield those rights from being reexamined by the Supreme Court.

Learn More Clarence Thomas Signals the Risk of Same-Sex Marriage & Contraception Rights After Roe V. Wade Is Overturned

The Respect for Marriage Act, which would prevent state law from not recognizing marriages on the basis of “the sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin of those individuals,” passed the House 267-157 on July 19 with the support of 47 Republicans, including members of leadership. The bill is expected to be supported by all 50 Democrats in the Senate and four Republican Senators including Tillis, Rob Portman from Ohio, Susan Collins, Maine and Lisa Murkowski, Alaska. To pass it will require six additional Republican votes. This is a critical turning point in the GOP’s history on this issue.

A Democratic Senate aide tells TIME that Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, who was the first openly queer politician elected to the Senate, is working with Collins to build more support among their GOP colleagues by “adding language that provides more clarity that the legislation would not take away any religious liberty or conscience protections.”

“It’s not just the GOP—the vast majority of Americans don’t want the government in their business. They don’t want the government to decide who they can and cannot marry who that special person is in their life,” says South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace, who voted in favor of the bill in the House. “This is 2022 and we need our party to have a larger tent. There are many gay conservatives. And we just want to make sure they have a home.”

With the midterms at hand, some Republicans might now be open to same-sex marriage rights. Midterm elections are a time when the party at power loses its seats. However, the Supreme Court ruling ending federal rights to abortion has fired up Democrats and put more races on the table. It also cast doubts over the possibility that Republicans could regain control of the House or the Senate. Gabriele Magni of Loyola Marymount University is a political scientist and professor. Many of those 47 House Republicans who voted in favor of the bill are now running for competitive seats. Most primaries have already passed. Many GOP candidates now focus more on winning potential swing voters than their far-right base in order to win the general election. “A decent bloc of Republicans know that that they have so much going for them this year, when it comes to inflation, or the economy, or Joe Biden’s bad approval ratings,” says Miles Coleman, the associate editor of the election forecaster ‘Sabato’s Crystal Ball’ at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Why would they want to re-litigate an issue that they know most people already think of as settled?”

Still, less than 25% of House Republicans voted for the bill—a lower percentage than both Americans overall and Republican voters who say they support same-sex marriage. Not all wings are willing to go along. “It seems as if conservatives have lost their courage on this issue,” says Kevin Roberts, president of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. “We have not given up on it, even though there has been this shift in the Republican Party.”

Dramatic change

On May 17, 2004, 78 identical-sex married couples married in Massachusetts at Cambridge City Hall. This marked the beginning of legal marriages between same-sex people in America. According to Gallup, 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage at the time, including both presidential candidates— Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry.

The acceptance of gay marriages increased in America over the following ten years. In media, representation of lesbian and gay couples has increased. More people came out to their friends and family—meaning more people personally knew an openly LGBTQ person. As a result, more lesbian and gay couples could access same-sex marital institutions thanks to liberal states. “Our opponents had said, ‘The sky will fall. Marriage will be destroyed by letting same-sex couples marry.’ And none of that happened,” says David Stacy, the leader of the federal policy team at the LGBTQ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign. “People were like, ‘Oh, what were we afraid of?’”

In a sign of how much had changed for the issue politically, then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden came out in support of same-sex marriage rights during Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign—the first major party presidential ticket to ever do so. In 2012, Ohio senator Rob Portman, a gay father, became the first Republican Senator to support same-sex marriage legalization. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution provided a legal right for gay couples to marry, thereby removing all state bans.

Learn More Jim Obergefell helped secure the right to same-sex marriage. Now He’s Fighting to Keep It

Opposition that will not relent

The Democratic Party’s opposition to gay marriage is almost gone. However, it has declined within the GOP. Donald Trump ran for President in 2016 saying he was a “real friend” to the LGBT community, and according to network exit polls conducted by Edison Research, support for Trump among LGTBQ voters grew from 14% in 2016 to 27% in 2020.

“You’ve heard the messaging kind of adjust over the last couple of years with Republicans who don’t want to really address this,” says Charles T. Moran, president of the LGBT conservative group Log Cabin Republicans. “They’ll say something like, ‘I personally don’t support gay marriage, but it’s settled law, so we’re not going to address that.”

Moran says some GOP lawmakers told him they opposed the bill in the House not because they don’t support same-sex marriage, but because they don’t want to be seen endorsing an argument that ObergefellCould be overturned. Moran said that Moran responded by saying that he must go to gay/lesbian voters in fall to inform them that the Republican Party has been there for them. However, if this bill’s GOP vote is small, this will make that messaging much harder.

In the Senate, midterms are likely to play an important role. There, Republican legislators in close races will have to assess how much voting against same-sex married could harm their chances. “Republicans are worried to some extent about giving Democrats another possible mobilizing issue following abortion,” says Magni. LGBTQ advocates are also lobbying for its passage, aware with that with the Equality Act—which would ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation—stalled in the Senate without GOP support, the Respect for Marriage Act could be the only LGBTQ rights legislation passed before the midterm elections.

However, there is still opposition to homosexual marriage on the left. Republicans voting for it could also be at risk of alienating donors or base voters..Roberts from Heritage claimed in July, that defeating The Respect for Marriage Act was unacceptable one their political arm’s top five priorities, and says they’re lobbying against the bill and will keep track of how Republican Senators vote. In Heritage’s view, the language of the Respect for Marriage Act passed by the House would open the door for legalizing polygamy and violate religious freedom protections. “Since Obergefell, we’ve been looking for the opportunity to re-elevate this as a top of mind issue,” Roberts says, “especially for conservatives.”

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