The first article in a two-part series. Read Part 2, Fight Against Gay Marriage? Not if Iowa GOP Wants Young Voters, on Iowa City Patch.
Troubled by polling data that shows traditional positions on issues like same-sex marriage are costing elections, the Republican Party is going through what its leaders politely call a period of introspection.
More brutally, it's a question of whether the GOP can hold its nose and keep quiet on same-sex marriage and other social issues in order to welcome in a new group of young voters whose priorities center more on fiscal values than family values.
The conversation is critically important – and difficult – in Iowa, where the results of first-in-the-nation caucuses and the Straw Poll leading up to the early presidential contest are increasingly criticized as reflecting a deeply fractured state party that hasn't produced any successful national standard-bearers recently.
Gay marriage critics Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in 2012 and 2008, respectively, in both case submarining past a better funded and more moderate Mitt Romney. Both dropped out of the race when their campaigns failed to gain traction with a majority of American voters who describe themselves in polls as increasingly comfortable with the idea of gay families, with mixed feelings on other social value positions.
Iowa may have one more chance to get it right – or at least right of center.
“There’s some concern Iowa could lose the caucuses because we push people too far into ideological corners,” said Mike Mahaffey, a former state Republican chairman. “2016 is important for the future of the caucuses in the state of Iowa.”
Gay Marriage a Non-Starter Issue Among Young Voters
If they needed one after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s crushing loss in November, the post-election Gallup Poll was a wake-up call for Republicans.
More than half of Americans – 53 percent – think that same-sex marriages should be recognized as valid, according to Gallup. That’s up from 40 percent in 2008, which was up from 35 percent in 1999.
Among young voters aged 18-29, 73 percent support same-sex marriage.
Almost a third of them were Republicans. The poll also showed that 22 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) voters supported Romney in the November election.
The poll clearly shows the GOP needs more voters like University of Iowa student Tim O’Hara, 22, who voted for Romney, but also supports gay marriage. He argued that the GOP’s anti-gay-marriage stance doesn't make him a Democratic voter by default.
However, O'Hara thinks the GOP could pick up some moderate voters by dialing back sharp political rhetoric and said he “wishes they would stop” making the issue a priority.
“It doesn’t push me away from the party because I don’t want to vote for a liberal who’s going to make a federal law about it,” said O’Hara, a senior from Oak Park, IL.
David Yepsen, a political analyst, concurred with that thinking.
“It’s not just that Republicans are losing the votes of gays and lesbians, it’s a porthole issue to the votes of younger Americans,” said Yepsen, who covered politics for the Des Moines Register for 34 years and now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
Yepsen said Republicans did poorly with people under the age of 24, those voters who are much more comfortable with gay marriage and gay rights.
“It’s an age thing," Yepsen said. "One reason it became acceptable in the U.S. military in the space of about 10 years is that younger troops said they didn’t have a problem with it. In the older days, they did.”
“I’m a firm believer that all the right things happen for all the wrong reasons. ... These are conversations they wouldn’t be having if Mitt Romney had won,” Yepsen said.
As a political issue, gay marriage is a non-starter with many young Republicans and Libertarian-leaning Independents, said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.
"Speaking in general, they're concerned with more economic things than the social stuff: the economy, getting a job, things of that nature,” Hagle said. "It's just not as important as a major issue that's going to make them vote for one candidate over another."
GOP voter Creighton Cox of Urbandale, where he’s a city councilman, said religious convictions about issues like marriage have no place in the political discourse and shouldn’t be used to “prevent services … to a couple that wants to get married.”
He thinks the Republican party needs to abandon opposition to gay marriage as a priority issue. “The economy, fiscal responsibility, education and public safety should be the things the GOP should focus on,” Cox said. “Inclusion, not exclusion, will help foster a stronger GOP.”
Stability and Other Family Values
That’s exactly the message two Republican strategists – including the now openly gay architect of President George W. Bush’s successful 2004 campaign – brought to Iowa last week.
Ken Mehlman, who ran Bush’s campaign, and David Kochel, Romney’s Iowa campaign strategist, made the case that it’s politically pragmatic to ease up on social issues, such as stopping the struggle against legalized gay marriage. Not only that, they argued, it’s completely in keeping with conservative values such as personal liberty and limiting government.
Former state legislator Jeff Angelo of Ames, whose Iowa Republicans for Freedom group brought Mehlman and Kochel to Iowa, said many of the same arguments conservatives cite in their opposition to gay marriage can be used to support it – even the “family values” morality and religious freedom arguments.
Angelo, a same-sex marriage opponent during a 12-year stint in the Iowa Senate that ended in 2009, said his own change of heart came about when he realized he had gay friends and relatives with whom he agreed on many other issues.
Read More: Click the link to read Angelo's 2011 Des Moines Register column, "Why my View on Same-sex Marriage Has Changed."
“It becomes harder to say no to that,” he said. “It begins to push people away from the party rather than bring people in.”
As the party for freedom and limited government, “we do not want government to tell same gender couples that they cannot be married,” Angelo said.
He also said that monogamous family relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are stabilizing factors in society and government shouldn’t want to stop that.
“Gay men and women are wanting to form stable families,” he said. “We need to promote that for the good of our culture.”
He thinks the conversation will move the party forward.
“In the end if you want to win elections you have to have more people who support your party than the opposition party,” Angelo said. “Our party is in a state of contraction right now, not expansion.”
Pragmatic or Betrayal of GOP Principles?
As Mehlman and Kochel crisscross the state with Iowa Republicans for Freedom, they haven’t been shown the door, exactly, but neither have they been given a robust welcome.
According to a Des Moines Register report, “several Republicans ducked out the back door” after a private reception with Mehlman at the Des Moines gathering.
Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said some Republicans think softening on social issues like gay marriage would be a tactical error and a betrayal of its principles.
“The GOP is the party that opposes gay marriage,” Schmidt said “If people want to vote for candidates who support gay marriage, there is the Democratic Party.
“I don’t see many Republicans changing their mind on gay marriage, so it’s probably not a winning position of the party,” he said.
Read related blogs on Patch: Click the links to read One Iowa Executive Director Donna Red Wing's blogs, The Conservative Case for Marriage Equality and Our Journey is Not Complete; With a Few Words Obama Changed Everything
Schmidt suggested, however, that Republicans may want to muzzle themselves a bit on the issue of gay marriage.
“The Iowa GOP probably doesn't need to emphasize opposition to gay marriage and put it high on the burner because it is not among the top five or 10 issues that voters are concerned about,” he said. “It does not, however, have to ‘abandon’ its position on gay marriage.”
Most observers think that convincing a state party whose disarray is epitomized by the fact that supporters of Ron Paul’s presidential bid lead the state GOP machinery – as disparate a group of voters as can be collected anywhere, Mahaffey noted – is going to be a heavy lift.
“There’s a conflict going on inside the Republican Party,” he said. “It used to be moderates vs. conservatives. Now it’s conservatives vs. conservatives.”
Party activists like Mehlman, Kochel and Angelo calling for moderation on same-sex marriage are trying to make the pill a little easier to swallow by telling their flock they don’t have to give up their principles. However, making a priority of anti-gay views means other Republican principles – smaller government, fiscal restraint and a strong defense – are losing at the ballot box.
Embracing gay marriage – or at least not being vocal about their opposition to it – isn’t the only thing Republicans need to do to bring more voters under their tent.
How to Gain Voters?
The Republican party could probably make up a bigger share of its deficit at the polls by loosening its opposition to certain immigration reforms, Mahaffey said, pointing out that some of the GOP’s most ardent supporters – business leaders – believe Republicans need a more inclusive position on immigration.
Republican losses were also significant among minority voters.
“As a small-town lawyer, I have a lot of clients – dairy farmers, construction companies, different kinds of industries – who rely on Hispanic workers,” Mahaffey said. “I’m not saying illegal workers, but everyone from the U.S. Chamber to farm organizations is talking about how we’re going to deal with this immigration issue.
“A significant portion of the Republican Party is more sympathetic for business and other reasons to having some kind of comprehensive immigration reforms,” Mahaffey said. “I know, because I talk to them.”
Yepsen thinks more moderate positions on gay marriage and immigration will become part of the GOP rhetoric as a matter of political pragmatism, if not on the issues’ merits.
“I’m a firm believer that all the right things happen for all the wrong reasons,” he said. “Republicans are having a period of introspection, and that includes gay marriage and immigration. These are conversations they wouldn’t be having if Mitt Romney had won.”
Tomorrow, we’ll hear from students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa about their feelings on same-sex marriage as a political issue.
(Iowa Patch editors Deb Belt, Brian Morelli, Ashlee Kieler, Stephen Schmidt, Jessica Miller, Alison Gowans and Megan VerHelst contributed to this report.)