WASHINGTON — A quiet transformation is taking place in the Republican Party, which has begun to embrace openly gay candidates – and among gay Republicans, who now feel more comfortable speaking out in a party that may have accepted them but didn’t always show it.
While differences still exist, the party is on the cusp of a generational shift in which the longtime foes of gay rights are replaced by younger party leaders who are more accepting.
“It’s an exponential change from a few years ago,” said former Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe. “It’s happening, and it’s going to continue to happen.”
Kolbe, who represented the southeast corner of Arizona from 1985 to 2007, was one of only two openly gay Republicans ever to serve in Congress.
There are issues on which many gay Republicans differ with their party, not the least of which is same-sex marriage. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other party leaders oppose it, and that stance is embedded in the party’s platform. While they may have welcomed President Barack Obama’s support of same-sex marriage last week, on other issues – such as taxes, regulation and the size of government – gay Republicans are as steadfast as any other party member.
There are only four openly gay members of Congress now, all Democrats. But that could change this year.
“You’ll elect at least one gay Republican for Congress this year,” Kolbe said.
It might be Richard Tisei, a former Massachusetts state senator, who’s campaigning on what he describes as the number one issue for gay voters and everyone else in the state’s 6th Congressional District, north of Boston.
“In general, the campaign I’m running on is based on the economy,” he said.
Tisei does support same-sex marriage, and he said party leaders knew that from the beginning of his campaign for Congress.
“I don’t agree with the party platform, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a good Republican,” Tisei said.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has designated Tisei as a “Young Gun,” meaning he’s on the national party’s radar and can expect to get more resources for his campaign. Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas said Tisei “has met organizational and fundraising benchmarks and has established himself as a strong contender.”
Tisei, who was a Massachusetts legislator for 26 years and a candidate for lieutenant governor, said the fact that he was openly gay had been no barrier to his rise.
“I’m very comfortable with who I am and what I believe in,” he said. “When people view me, they view me in the context of what I’ve accomplished. That’s the way it should be.”
Donald Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and the author of “Out and Running: Gay and Lesbian Candidates, Elections and Policy Representation,” said there’d been a shift in the Republican Party in the past decade.
“The party overall has been more open to gays and lesbians,” he said. “And gay and lesbian candidates have been more supported.”
There are awkward moments. Earlier this month, for example, Romney hired Richard Grenell, an openly gay foreign-affairs expert who’d worked for former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton. But the Romney campaign was caught off guard by the backlash from social conservatives, who protested Grenell’s outspoken support for same-sex marriage.
Although Romney and his staff publicly stood by Grenell and encouraged him to stay, he stepped aside.
“Our campaign hires staff based on their qualification for the job,” said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the former Massachusetts governor. “Gov. Romney has spoken out on intolerance, saying there is no room for that in our party.”
Zach Wyatt, a Republican state representative in Missouri, said gay Republicans needed to have a conversation with members of their own party.
“If you don’t say anything, they’re going to think they’re going the right way all the time,” he said.
Surrounded by colleagues from both parties at a news conference earlier this month, Wyatt, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran, denounced Republican-sponsored legislation that would have prohibited public schools from discussing sexual orientation in the classroom, which was known in Missouri and other states as a “don’t say gay” bill. But Wyatt wasn’t finished. In the same news conference, he came out, making him the only openly gay Republican state legislator in office in the country.
“Members of my own party and members on the other side say it’s interesting how the mindset is changing,” Wyatt said.
Obama’s announcement last week is a reminder that Democrats historically have come to support gay-rights causes ahead of Republicans, leading a generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters to identify strongly with the party.
At the same time, social conservatives who opposed gay rights came to dominate the Republican Party, making it difficult for gay Republicans to speak up. But as social issues have become secondary to economic and national security issues, gay Republicans are finding their voice.
“I think people need to realize that you’ll never have true equality unless you have advocates on both sides of the aisle,” Tisei said.
To be sure, Democrats don’t always vote in favor of gay rights. When the House of Representatives voted in December 2010 to end the military’s ban on openly gay service members, 15 Democrats voted to keep it. Meanwhile, an equal number of Republicans in the House and eight in the Senate voted to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Jerame Davis, the executive director of Stonewall Democrats, a gay rights group, acknowledges that some Republicans are better on gay rights issues than some Democrats are.
“We know there are Democrats who aren’t all the way there on LGBT equality,” he said.
Four Republicans in the House and three in the Senate are co-sponsors of legislation to protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination. One Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, supports repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. A law to allow same-sex marriage in New York wouldn’t have passed last year if not for four Republican state senators.
However, a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage has 27 co-sponsors in the House, all Republicans.
“Perhaps some elements in the party are changing,” Davis said. “I definitely don’t envy their position. There’s still a lot of work to bring the Republican Party into the 21st century.”
Not that long ago, no lawmaker – Republican or Democrat – felt comfortable coming out as gay.
Kolbe wasn’t openly gay when he was elected to Congress, and he even voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 before coming out. Kolbe said he’d vote to repeal the law if he were still in Congress, calling it one of his most “unfortunate” votes.
The law had strong bipartisan support and was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. While Clinton and many of the lawmakers who voted for the act now say it’s discriminatory and should be repealed, the Republican Party’s platform contains a plank supporting a federal constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said that wasn’t going to change.
“We’re going to leave the specific policy issues to our candidates, but on the topic of marriage, the RNC’s platform is clear that the GOP supports marriage between one man and one woman,” she said.
The Daily Beast website called attention last week to a memo by Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen urging the party to moderate its stance on gay marriage, noting the dramatic change in public opinion on gay rights and a generational shift on the issue.
“I think a lot of Republicans are starting to play catch-up,” said R. Clarke Cooper, the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group.
A CBS/New York Times poll conducted last Friday through Sunday found that 46 percent of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. Among all Americans, 62 percent supported either marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples, the poll found, while 33 percent favored neither. Illustrating the generation gap, 70 percent of 18- to 44-year-olds supported either marriage or civil unions, while only 55 percent of respondents 45 and older did.Despite the changes, many in the Republican Party’s social conservative base still oppose same-sex marriage and, for those voters, Obama’s announcement last week became a rallying cry. In 2004, same-sex marriage was on the ballot in 11 states, and the issue was thought to have cost Democrats votes.Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement last week that the president’s announcement “almost ensures that marriage will again be a major issue in the presidential election.”
Republican leaders were more muted, preferring to keep their focus on what unites the party: fixing the economy and defeating Obama. Romney repeated his opposition to same-sex marriage, and said little else. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did much the same.
“Even though these issues keep coming up, they’re not election issues the way they were in 2004,” Haider-Markel said. “The economy dominates people’s thinking.”