In the wake of Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s announcement that his son is gay, and his son’s coming out prompting the senator to support gay marriage, it has become commonplace to assert that Republicans are about to flip-flop on the gay marriage issue. Activists on both sides seem to agree. The Log Cabin Republicans triumphantly declared: “If there was any doubt that the conservative logjam on the issue of civil marriage for committed gay and lesbian couples has broken, Senator Portman’s support for the freedom to marry has erased it.” On Sunday, Karl Rove appeared to take leave of his senses when he said he could imagine the 2016 Republican presidential nominee supporting legal same-sex marriage. And with the Supreme Court set to hear a challenge to gay marriage bans this week, many observers are predicting that one or more conservative justices will join with the Court’s liberal wing to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and possibly California’s Proposition 8 as well.
On the other side, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins has warned that, “If the RNC abandons marriage, evangelicals will either sit the elections out completely – or move to create a third party. Either option puts Republicans on the path to a permanent minority.”
Both sides are getting way ahead of events. I can’t predict the Court’s ruling, but I can predict the Republican Party’s stance on gay rights for the foreseeable future: hostile opposition. Many observers lump gay rights with immigration – an issue on which the GOP has begun to shift leftward – as social issues on which the Republicans must modernize or die. Presumably, the logic follows, they will choose accommodation over death.
Immigration does have some similarities to gay rights, but examining those similarities suggests that the Republican Party is not going to embrace gay rights just yet. On gay marriage, the GOP isn’t in the same place as it is on immigration. Rather, it is in the same place it was in the last election cycle.
Think back to 2004: George W. Bush, on the advice of Rove, supported comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He also reached out to Latinos and won around 40 percent of the Latino vote. But the anti-immigration backlash in his party during his second term was ferocious. 2005-2007 saw the rise to prominence of the Minutemen, a vigilante border patrol group opposed to illegal immigration, the notoriously outspoken anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, and the failure of immigration reform in Congress. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a co-sponsor of the legislation, shifted rightward on immigration and was demolished by President Obama among Latino voters, 67 percent to 31 percent, in 2008.