It would have been unimaginable even a couple of years ago.
The most powerful Republican in Washington flew to San Diego this month to help raise money for an openly gay candidate for the House of Representatives.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wasn’t just trying to help elect a Republican. He was trying to help his party build a new image, and reach out to voters it had spent the last decade shunning. His decision to campaign for gay candidates was met with surprisingly nominal opposition, which he was able to brush aside quickly.
Little-noticed and making barely a stir, Boehner’s trip was a potent sign of a fundamental shift in the country and its politics.
After decades of solid opposition, a majority of Americans now support marriage between those of the same sex, would accept it if a child of theirs were gay and say it wouldn’t make a difference if a candidate for Congress were gay. The shift has come rapidly; it was just in 2013 that a majority first supported same sex marriage.
This change didn’t come from political leaders. Rather, it was driven by Americans themselves, a “rainbow revolution” propelled by a new generation coming of age in a new era with new attitudes, older people becoming more familiar with gays and lesbians in their families and communities, workplaces that welcome gays, changing messages in popular culture and new conversations in places of worship.
As people are changing their attitude, politics is changing in reaction.
Democrats who long opposed same-sex marriage – such as Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton – all have changed their position. Many Republicans as well have changed, some in their position, some in their approach.
The state Republican Party in Nevada dropped its opposition to same-sex marriage. Tea party icon Michele Bachmann said marriage wasn’t even an issue this election. “Boring,” she said. And just a decade after opposition to gay marriage helped Republican George W. Bush win re-election, his political guru said he could envision one of his party’s presidential hopefuls in 2016 supporting same-sex marriage.
There are still opponents, to be sure. A solid segment of America opposes same-sex marriage. The Republican Party is torn. Some lawmakers are refusing to allow couples to marry, even as an avalanche of court rulings say they can. Religions such as the Roman Catholic Church weigh changes, then back off.
But rapidly changing views on gays and lesbians, particularly marriage, are altering American politics this fall, perhaps for good.
Carla Jones, 59, a real estate agent from Orange County, Calif., is one who’s changed her mind. For her, it was realizing that sexual orientation is not a choice but rather something that a person is born with.
“We’re hard-wired, if you will, in our sexual preference,” she said. “Once I kind of understood that, then everything started to fall into place about same-sex marriage.”
Impact is biggest among Republicans
The impact on politics is most evident in the Republican Party.
A Republican candidate for U.S. Senate is running statewide TV ads in favor of same-sex marriage. A pair of openly gay Republicans – Carl DeMaio of California and Richard Tisei of Massachusetts – are running in competitive House races, both featuring ads with their partners, both backed by Boehner. At least eight Republican members of Congress have indicated their support for same-sex marriage. Leading the pack: Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who reversed his longtime opposition because his son is gay.
Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon who’s a Republican candidate in Oregon for the Senate, said she’d decided to air the TV ad featuring a gay man who successfully fought the state’s same-sex marriage ban so that voters would realize she represented all residents in Oregon, not just a segment of the population.
“The Republican Party is a big-tent party,” Wehby said. “We don’t have to be in lockstep on every issue.”
Former first lady Laura Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney support same-sex marriage. Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, served as official witnesses at the wedding of two women in September 2013.
Republicans in Nevada have dropped opposition to same-sex marriage from the state party’s platform, and others are pushing to do the same for the the national party’s platform in 2016.
“I think people should be able to do what they want to do. I don’t know why we would fight it,” said Mike Jenkins, 47, a contractor from Canton, Ga. “You can’t stop the millions of people from being together. They’re gonna be together if they want to be together, so why fight a simple marriage?”
The shifting politics were reflected more broadly, and quickly, in the Democratic Party.
For years, Democratic leaders opposed same-sex marriage. But they, too, moved in the wake of public opinion.
Obama opposed same-sex marriage through his 2008 election, then said his thinking was evolving. In 2012, he changed his mind. He said he was influenced by his wife and young daughters.
Bill Clinton, who signed a 1996 law allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that had taken place in other states, argued for its repeal last year.
Hillary Clinton said in March that she now supported same-sex marriage “personally, and as a matter of policy and law.” A slew of lawmakers followed suit, including nearly every Democratic senator.
“There’s a lot of stagnation across the board on every sort of policy advance. But this is one cause where things continue to move,” said Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, a group that’s pushing to secure same-sex marriage nationwide. “It’s a sign of where the country is and where voters are. No question.”
It’s not an election issue this time
Unlike previous years, gay and lesbian issues, including same-sex marriage, have garnered little attention in elections this fall, even in the races where gay candidates are running.
In Maine, for example, where Democrat Mike Michaud could become the first openly gay governor in the nation, the central issue is his rival’s leadership style, not his own lifestyle.
“Yes, I am gay,” Michaud wrote in a guest column in the Bangor Daily News last November in response to rumors about his sexual orientation. “But why should it matter?”
“This cycle could make an end to identity politics,” said Gregory T. Angelo, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, which calls itself the nation’s largest Republican organization advocating for equal rights for gays and lesbian.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., the first openly gay parent in Congress, said many Republicans didn’t want to talk about an issue on which they might not agree with a majority of Americans. “They’re running away,” he said.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, locked in a tough re-election battle, declared that the fight to oppose same-sex marriage had ended after the Supreme Court rejected the state’s appeal in October. “It’s over in Wisconsin,” he said.
In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, another potential 2016 hopeful, called the issue settled over the summer despite his personal opposition to same-sex marriage.
Eighty-three percent of adults said that whether someone was gay wouldn’t make a difference in whether they voted for that candidate, according to a recent McClatchy-Marist poll. That’s nearly double the 49 percent who felt that way when the Los Angeles Times asked them in 1985.
This may not yet change the internal workings of the Republican Party when it comes to primary contests. Polls find that Republicans still oppose same-sex marriage by more than than 2 to 1. Tea party supporters oppose it by nearly 3 to 1.
But it’s affecting general elections, in which candidates have to face voters who are in the middle.
John Feehery, a Republican political consultant and former congressional aide, said same-sex marriage wasn’t a “particularly good general election issue” for his party. “Republicans are trying to figure out how to expand the party,” he said.
Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, who’s lobbied against same-sex marriage for years, told reporters at the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington that same-sex marriage isn’t an issue in this year’s elections. “In fact, it’s boring,” she said.
Republican consultant Karl Rove, who watched anti-same-sex-marriage amendments in 11 states boost turnout that also helped President George W. Bush in 2004, now says he can imagine a 2016 presidential hopeful from his party supporting same-sex marriage.
In the rare instances where same-sex marriage is being debated this year, the roles of the parties have been reversed. Instead of Republicans attacking Democrats on the issue and using state referendums on marriage to motivate voters to get to the polls, Democrats are attacking Republicans.
In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall launched a social media campaign against his Republican opponent for voting against a bill that would protect gays from discrimination. In Pennsylvania, Democrats started a petition opposing Republican Gov. Tom Corbett after he compared same-sex marriage to incest. And in Arizona, Democrats are criticizing Republican legislators who pushed through a bill allowing companies to deny service to gay customers based on religious beliefs.
Opponents remain, and fight back
This shift isn’t universal, however, as a large slice of America still opposes same-sex marriage.
Mario Salazar, 57, of Coral Gables, Fla., a sales director at a company in South Florida, said he always had – and always would – oppose same-sex marriage, though he had family and friends who were gay.
“The sanctity of marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Salazar, who grew up in Puerto Rico. “If somehow nature would allow same-sex couples to procreate a child after having sexual intercourse, then I would acknowledge and maybe come to terms with that idea. Until then, and according to my beliefs, I am totally against this new fad! What’s next? Marriage between humans and beasts?”
Political groups and institutions that represent opponents are grappling for the right way to fight back – and to win general elections.
Several conservative groups – including the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage, for example – pushed Boehner and party leaders to abandon gay candidates.
But the leaders balked, saying the party needs to be more welcoming to gays, women, young people and minorities after its losses in 2012 – and they pumped millions of dollars into the gay candidates’ races.
A number of lawmakers and groups have vowed to fight court decisions that paved the way for same-sex marriage in states.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he planned to introduce a constitutional amendment that would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down marriage laws.
“We should remain faithful to our moral heritage and never hesitate to defend it,” he said.
At least three states – Kansas, Montana and South Carolina – refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as they fight the court rulings.
“The state of Kansas has voted on this; the people of Kansas have voted on this,” Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said at a rally this month. “We need to keep pushing those issues and keep surging. . . . Surge forward into the election cycle.”
Republican former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who’s considering another run for president in 2016, said that if the GOP didn’t fight same-sex marriage he’d leave the party.
“If the Republicans want to lose guys like me and a whole bunch of still God-fearing, Bible-believing people, go ahead and just abdicate on this issue. And go ahead and say abortion doesn’t matter, either,” Huckabee said on the American Family Association’s “Today’s Issues” radio show. “I’ll become an independent. I’ll start finding people that have guts to stand. I’m tired of this.”
Still, there are signs that even staunch opponents see the way the country is moving.
Victoria Cobb, the president of the Family Foundation, which opposes same-sex marriage in Virginia, said her group would shift some of its focus after the recent court decision allowing same-sex marriage in the state.
“We will work,” she said, “to ensure that while same-sex marriage is legal in Virginia, the rights and freedoms of those who disagree with the redefinition of marriage are treated equally and are not discriminated against in their religious practice, education, business or employment.”
Laura Corley of the Macon Telegraph, Caty Hirst of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Steve Rothaus of the Miami Herald, and Samantha Ehlinger and Daniel Salazar contributed to this article.