‘Stunning’ shift on gay marriage is changing political landscape

02/03/2014 3:00 AM

02/03/2014 6:49 AM

When the new attorney general in Virginia decided recently to oppose his state’s ban on gay marriage, it might have been dismissed as an isolated move by a Democrat seeking to reverse Republican policy. But it underscored the speed and breadth of a fundamental change in the country.

Public opinion on same-sex marriage is changing at breathtaking speed. Voters across the nation are dropping their opposition, and many state gay-marriage bans just recently adopted are already coming under assault.

“On no issue in American life have opinions changed as fast as they have on gay rights,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and political consultant. “It is truly a stunning development.”

The change is especially vexing for Republicans, who used the issue to get conservative voters to the polls just a decade ago and now are torn between their traditional stance and political base on one hand and the quickly changing political landscape on the other.

Among the most dramatic shifts are in politically key battleground states such as Virginia, which was a bellwether in the last two presidential elections.

The state’s newly elected attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, announced recently that he’d join a lawsuit to overturn Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage. It wasn’t just an abrupt reversal from his Republican predecessor, Ken Cuccinelli – who vehemently opposed gay marriage and who lost a bid for the governor’s office in November – it underscored a turn for the state itself.

The ban passed eight years ago with the support of 57 percent of the state’s voters, including Herring, who says his views on the issue have evolved. He’s not the only one to change his mind. Polls find that most other Virginians now support same-sex marriage, with 56 percent of likely voters opposing the state’s ban in an October poll by Virginia’s Christopher Newport University.

Many Republican legislators in Virginia, faced with those numbers, are hesitating to defend the gay marriage ban on its merits.

Their focus instead is on arguing that the attorney general has a duty to defend the ban because it’s a law passed by the voters, said Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“In Virginia it’s the same thing that’s happened nationally: Public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of same-sex marriage,” Sabato said. “It was an alien concept for most people. Then the more they thought about it and the more they discussed it with gay friends and gay family members, the more they were inclined to back it.”

As recently as 2009, Gallup found that only 40 percent of Americans thought that gay and lesbian marriages should be legally recognized. That number has swelled to nearly 60 percent, including 81 percent of Americans under age 30, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll last year.

The survey was taken soon before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act last June, giving momentum to efforts around the country to defeat prohibitions on gays and lesbians getting married.

The reversal in public opinion puts Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage in a tough spot that was nearly impossible to foresee a few years ago. Republican political strategist Karl Rove used opposition to gay marriage in mobilizing voters to help re-elect President George W. Bush in 2004. At the time, he called it one of the most potent issues to inspire the electorate.

Now Rove says he could imagine the next Republican presidential candidate supporting gay marriage. Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, came out as gay in 2010 and now fights for same-sex marriage.

Virginia isn’t the only pivotal state where the tide has turned so dramatically. Florida and Ohio, other key swing states in deciding presidential elections, have seen huge transformations in public opinion. Both passed bans on same-sex marriage in the last decade with support from nearly two-thirds of their voters.

But 54 percent of Floridians now back same-sex marriage, according to a poll last year by the Public Religion Research Institute.

It could become a major issue in November elections, with Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposing gay marriage and his likely challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist, supporting a court effort to overturn the state’s ban.

Recent polling found that Ohio voters support gay marriage as well. Ohio’s Rob Portman became the first sitting Republican in the U.S. Senate to endorse same-sex marriage last year, quickly followed by Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Portman’s approval ratings dropped after he announced his stance. But that loss of support was just a temporary blip, said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. Beck said his state might see a ballot attempt to legalize gay marriage this year.

Republican strategist Ayres said he expected the foreseeable future to be a patchwork of states that allowed same-sex marriage and those that didn’t.

“There’s no question national poll numbers have changed dramatically on the issue. But there is also no question that there are vast differences in the numbers depending upon the state,” Ayers said.

Gay-marriage bans are under fire even in the deeply conservative states of Utah and Oklahoma, however. Federal judges in recent weeks struck down their bans as unconstitutional, decisions the states have appealed. There’s also changing public opinion, with Utah voters evenly divided on same-sex marriage in a Salt Lake Tribune poll in January.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, up from just two in 2008. A ballot initiative is in the works to add Oregon to the list, and there are more than 40 cases pending in state and federal courts challenging bans around the nation.

One or more of those cases might reach the U.S. Supreme Court fairly quickly and decide the question once and for all, said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.

He said the movement had made big progress on a state-by-state basis and would continue those local fights but that the paramount issue was a ruling on whether it was constitutional to deny the right of marriage.

“It is ultimately the Supreme Court that is going to bring marriage equality to all 50 states,” Sainz said.

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