After the 33rd “yes” vote was counted in New York’s Senate Friday night, it was momentous not in the least because the Legislature had passed marriage equality – the state House had already approved the measure — but also because they passed it with four Republicans voting in favor of the historic measure in the Republican-controlled Senate. New York became the sixth state to allow marriage equality, and certainly not the last as polls show more Americans now favor marriage equality than who oppose it. And many across the nation celebrated with New York after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the marriage equality legislation into law on Friday night.
But there was one group that wasn’t cheering but who seemed like they should be – the Tea Partiers who champion the 10th Amendment and want states to take control of their own matters. That is, until the issue is whether states would be taking charge of their own marriage laws.
For the past few years, the Republican Party seems to be following a more libertarian path instead of claiming the moral high ground, as did prior to the economy bottoming out at the end of the Bush era. In fact, Bush’s views on marriage equality and morality were viewed as a key contributing factor to his re-election in 2004. So how do the states’ rights-championing tenthers mesh with the previously embraced Religious Right?
THE DONORS: In New York, it was a matter of following the money. Cuomo pulled together Republican donors who could help him win over senators in the Republican-controlled Senate. Using donors from the other party who were sympathetic — the New York Times reported that one of the donors has a gay son — helped sway some votes. “A major target was James S. Alesi, a Republican from suburban Rochester, who seemed tormented by his 2009 vote. […] The coalition approached him from every angle. The Republican donors invited him to a meeting on Park Avenue, telling him they would eagerly support him if he backed same-sex marriage.” Alesi eventually became the first Republican senator in New York to publicly support marriage equality.
But beyond just the politicians, it was a broad, unlikely group of allies who pushed for marriage equality. Labor unions rallied people while Republican donors funded lobbying efforts. Sean Avery, a hockey player for the New York Rangers, publicly spoke out in support of marriage equality, as did New York City MayorMichael Bloomberg.
Cuomo and the unified coalition of marriage equality supporters potentially created a roadmap for how they passed the bill in their state. The question now is whether such a bipartisanship force can be assembled again.
THE TEA PARTY: Tea Party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is having trouble figuring out how to phrase her opinion about marriage equality. First, responding to a question about marriage equality during the Republican presidential debate, she showed her Tea Party roots and said, “I don’t see that it’s the role of a president to go into states and interfere with their state law.” But she also said marriage should be between a man and a woman, and added at the end that she would support a constitutional amendment preventing marriage equality.
She gave a similar answer in an interview with Chris Wallace on this week’s Fox News Sunday, saying she supports New York’s right to enact marriage equality into law because the 10th Amendment gives states that right. But again, she also reiterated that she favors a constitutional amendment against marriage equality.
For a group that favors states’ rights, no national Tea Party figure has stood up in favor of marriage equality. When Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York spoke out against the measure before the Senate’s vote, he even described it as a form of government tyranny — using some Tea Party-style language rather than sticking to a strictly religious argument.
While Bachmann’s flirtation with embracing New York’s decision lines up with her Tea Party-favoring, states’ rights campaign mores, it doesn’t line up with the official views of the party whose nomination she seeks.
THE REPUBLICANS: Eight years have greatly changed the political field since Bush won re-election on social issues in a year when 11 states had ballot initiatives to create state consitutional bans same-sex couples from getting married. Now, the Republican candidates all still say they oppose marriage equality, but, as in New York, some Republican donors are standing on the other side of the issue. And nationwide polling suggests a majority of Americans favor marriage equality.
So where does that leave the Republican party?
While preserving traditional marriage was a tenet of the Republican party’s platform in 2008, it is not an issue mentioned prominently on the Republican National Committee’s website in 2011. Prominent Republicans including former Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush’s daughter Barbara Bush now support marriage equality, but Republican presidential candidates are focusing on their economic plans rather than their social views. In the all-important Iowa caucus, supporting marriage equality or civil unions could be trouble for a campaign in Iowa, with 58 percent of Republican Iowa caucus-goers polled saying they would not vote for a candidate who even supported civil unions.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) supports civil unions, while former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) only says people in nontraditional relationships should be given some rights. Meanwhile, openly gay Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger has been all but ignored by the media and shut out of the presidential debates and other key events. As for the rest of the crowded Republican field, the candidates are playing to their base, either opposing marriage equality outright or saying only that it is up to the states to decide. (A comprehensive rundown of the 2012 candidates and their positions on LGBT issues can be found here.)
That opinion may work for now among conservative primary voters and entrenched marriage equality opponents, but the tide is turning the other way – potentially leaving the Republicans behind.
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