That the Republican Party is in the midst of an identity crisis was made all the more clear by the competing responses to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, one by the party's parched "savior," Marco Rubio, and another by Tea Party darling Rand Paul, purveyor of spending cut proposals. While the GOP is tugged in two directions, many of its leaders have been calling for the "big tent" party to reopen its flaps and acknowledge the writing on the wall: just one win in the past six popular votes for president, thanks in part to an increasingly younger and more diverse electorate.
The outreach to Hispanic voters has already begun. Sean Hannity and the other members of the Foxerati have come around to the idea of immigration reform, while John McCain has warned that states like Arizona will "go from Republican to Democrat over time" if his fellow Republicans fail to pass legislation. As for women, the GOP establishment seems to have had it with "legitimate rape" scandals. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has declared that Republicans "must stop being the stupid party," and Karl Rove's new Conservative Victory Project is a concerted effort to defeat extreme candidates in Republican primaries (so as to avoid general-election defeats).
But does the outreach end there? Maybe there's another group Republicans should start to target: gays.
It may seem unlikely that a party whose platform calls for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage would soften its position on gay rights anytime soon, but already there are signs of it happening. No doubt reacting to the unambiguous results of the 2012 election—one which saw all ballot initiatives for gay marriage pass and all against fail, and a historic number of gay politicians elected to office—even once-rabid foes of same-sex marriage are changing their tune. "It is in every family. It is in every community. The momentum is clearly now in the direction in finding some way to ... accommodate and deal with reality," Newt Gingrich said in December. "And the reality is going to be that in a number of American states—and it will be more after 2014—gay relationships will be legal, period."
He's not alone. One of the leading Republican candidates for Los Angeles mayor is Kevin James, who is gay. A group calling itself the Iowa Republicans for Freedom is making the conservative case for marriage equality. And recently, representatives Richard Hanna of New York and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, both Republican, have come out in favor of including gay couples in immigration reform.
Gregory T. Angelo, interim executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, can't believe how quickly things are changing. "At the beginning of 2010, if you told someone that by the beginning of 2013 you would see Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed with Republican support, three Republican members of Congress signing on to the Respect for Marriage Act ... and Republican support for immigration reform that addresses gay bi-national couples, you'd likely be called crazy—but here we are," he wrote in an email. "The logjam that existed in the GOP for years is beginning to break apart, with members of the party free to vote their conscience on these matters rather than adhere to any single party line."
With a December 2012 Gallup poll showing a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage—including 30 percent of Republicans—those who remain staunchly opposed do so at their own peril. In that same survey, an overwhelming 73 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 support marriage equality. A recent Buzzfeed article claimed that young evangelicals are tired of the "culture war" and are taking on more libertarian positions towards gays.
"One thing is for certain. Young conservatives support same sex marriage," Jimmy LaSalvia, co-founder of GOProud, said. "Young conservatives are there, and everyone in the Republican Party knows that."
With the Supreme Court set to weigh in on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in June, the Republican Party may have little choice but to temper its position. SCOTUS could tackle the issue in several ways, and few legal scholars expect the Roberts court to hand down a sweeping decision on par with 1969's Loving vs. Virginia. Still, there's a strong chance that the court will strike down DOMA, which would allow Republicans to shift their position on gay marriage to a "states rights" issue, beginning what would surely be a steady march toward moderation on gay rights.
Let's say that happens, and Republicans move to the middle. Gay rights groups have long aligned themselves with Democrats—would gays remain loyal to the party even if they gained equal rights? Certain historical and cultural allegiances do die hard, but one need look no further than the once-solid Democratic South to see whether historical precedents can be trusted. There's a reason the saying "a week is like an eternity in politics" is so prevalent—the memory of the average American voter isn't terribly long.
The gay rights movement has gone mainstream thanks partly to its ability to market gays and lesbians as "safe" for Middle America. The demands of the movement—workplace protection, equal opportunity, the right to marry and serve in our military—are traditional, even conservative values, the argument being that gay people are just like everyone else, with similar desires and aspirations. Going beyond the values argument, one can argue that the "face" of the gay rights movement—in media, in particular, but even across the organizations most visible in the fight—has been one of carefully crafted "wholesomeness," creating an image of gays that may make them seem less frightening to Republicans than other minority groups. Many Americans think of gay people as white, mostly affluent singles and couples, a stereotype no doubt reinforced by the popularity of celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris, and shows like "Will and Grace" and "Modern Family."
Of course, the reality is quite different. Gays are not all affluent, or white. More than that, they are not monolithic in their values and goals. Sexual orientation does not discriminate: It crosses all races, ethnicities, and social strata, and gays are just as likely to be influenced by religion, culture, regional demographics, and media. What currently holds the gay voting community together—the pursuit for equal rights—may not last in the face of changing Republican attitudes.
"Once you get past gay issues and talk about core values of the GOP—lower taxes, less spending, less regulation—it becomes very easy to get people to see the attraction of the Republican Party," Angelo said. "Gay Americans are living in this economy, too—it's the great equalizer—and there are a great number of members of the LGBT community whose chief concern is getting a job, keeping their job, finding more meaningful work and keeping more of what they earn. That's where the Republican party can resonate most."
That's been the gay Republican pitch for years now, and apparently it hasn't taken hold. If anything, gay support for Democratic presidential candidates in national elections seems to be growing. Still, even if Republicans don't win over a majority of gay voters by moderating their positions, there are a lot of fiscally conservative but socially moderate voters who could return to the fold should the Republicans soften their positions. A recent article in The New York Times about young Obama voters in Montana said that they would be open to voting Republican if the candidate supported same-sex marriage.
The GOP's next presidential candidate isn't likely to embrace gay marriage, and even 2020 looks like a long shot. But it is equally unlikely that he (or she) will embrace a constitutional amendment against it. Will the party be able to shift its positions quickly enough to satisfy gay conservatives, let alone other gay voters? "There are too many straight Republicans who are in the closet on their support for gay marriage," LaSalvia said, adding that a lot of his group's members "are embarrassed to call themselves Republicans." "If I had to do it over again, would we put GOP in our name? I don't know. ... I'm not excited to call myself a Republican anymore. It's embarrassing."
If the founder of GOProud isn't proud of the GOP, it's hard to imagine other gays will be anytime soon. But the time may have finally come for the Republican Party to have its Sister Souljah moment, to reject the socially conservative voices in the party and recognize the obvious: Opposing gay rights is no longer a winning issue for the party. Otherwise, Republicans stand to lose a new generation of voters, and will find their electoral chances dwindling even further.
Correction: A previous version of this story got Jimmy LaSalvia's first name wrong.