Gay Marriage Generational Shift on View at CPAC

Gay Marriage Generational Shift on View at CPAC

By Scott Conroy - March 15, 2013

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The legions of young activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference here were still recovering from the previous night’s festivities when Friday’s news that Sen. Rob Portman had come out in support of gay marriage made the rounds.

Florida Atlantic University College Republicans Helen Pferdehirt and Thomas DeMaio were eating breakfast when they caught wind of the Ohio Republican’s flip. At first, each assumed that his reversal reflected a desire -- as a potential 2016 presidential candidate -- to make a pragmatic, high-profile move to the center.

When they learned that Portman’s change of heart was instead a personal awakening prompted by his gay son’s coming out of the closet, both CPAC attendees were unbothered.

It was young conservatives like themselves, after all, who had paved the way on the gay marriage issue for GOP leaders like Portman to follow.

“It doesn’t affect me,” said Pferdehirt, 22. “I feel that people in love should be allowed to be together. Definitely it needs to be a states’ issue and not the federal government making decisions for everybody.”

DeMaio -- who serves as president of his conservative student group -- agreed, noting that if someone doesn’t like the local marriage laws, he or she can move to a different state.

Their own views aside, these two college Republicans said they are certain that a shift toward a much greater acceptance of gay marriage is inevitable within conservative ranks.

“It’s definitely going to happen,” DeMaio asserted. “The question is just how it’s going to happen.”

When President Obama announced his newfound support for same-sex marriage last May, that reversal was seen as a watershed moment in what has come to be regarded as the millennial generation’s civil rights cause celebre.

Obama’s change of heart was viewed as a significant force in motivating young progressive-leaning voters to show up at the polls last year in even larger numbers than they did in 2008, helping to propel the president to a second term.

But interviews with young activists at CPAC on Friday demonstrated the extent to which the ground has shifted -- generationally -- on gay marriage, even among true-believing conservatives who would never dream of voting for Obama.

“Gay marriage isn’t a big issue to me -- I think it should be fine,” said Brian Devlin, 18. “Republicans are about government staying out and people having their own choices, and that’s why I’m pro-gay marriage.”

Even among young CPAC attendees who are not advocating for gay rights, many sounded a significantly different tone on the issue than that of their older ideological brethren.

Colin Marshall, 17, said he supports civil unions rather than gay marriage because he believes both sides should have to make compromises on the issue. But when asked whether he hoped to see more Republican leaders reverse course on their support for only “traditional marriage,” he issued an emphatic warning to the powers that be within the GOP.

“I would hope so because if they don’t, we’re never going to win,” Marshall said. “We can’t keep being so conservative with the social issues. I think we’re going to have to at least accept it.”

Naomi Wells, 19, sounded a bit more torn on the issue than did some of the friends who traveled with her to CPAC from Wisconsin. Still, she said that a greater acceptance of gay marriage was inevitable, even among religious conservatives.

“What you believe personally on the matter, we still don’t need to tell other people what to do,” she said. “If you’re Christian and you don’t believe in it, well, they’re just getting married in the government’s eyes. They’re not getting married in God’s eyes.”

Still, as CPAC enters its fourth decade, there are no signs that the nation’s largest annual gathering of right-leaning activists intends to push out the social conservatives who oppose gay marriage (and dominate this year’s list of speakers and panelists).

In fact, the opposite appears to be the case.

For the second straight year, The American Conservative Union (which hosts CPAC) and the conservative gay rights group GOProud tussled publicly in advance of the conference. And both GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans were excluded from official roles at the three-day event.

But in a brief interview on Friday, ACU Chairman Al Cardenas said that the conference’s acceptance of a variety of viewpoints on the gay marriage issue among its participants was a point of pride.

“Look, when it comes to social issues, the new generation has different perspectives,” Cardenas said. “It’s an interesting conversation.”

In the view of many college-age participants at this year’s CPAC, it’s a conversation that needs to lead more quickly to action from the Republican Party’s leadership.

Asked whether she hoped that other prominent GOP figures would follow Portman’s lead in embracing gay marriage, Megan O’Dean, 19, said simply, “I would hope so.”

“I feel like when people have issues with the Republican Party, that’s what they focus on -- gay marriage and stuff like that,” she explained. “And it gives a negative view because there’s more to the Republican Party than that.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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