Analysis

GOP grows isolated on issue of gay marriage

Many Republicans avoid topic as society changes

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As a seemingly non-stop wave of court rulings that favor marriage equality continues to make headlines, it has come as no surprise that Democrats have been quick to praise decisions that are moving Colorado closer to the reality of same-sex nuptials.

On the other hand, Republicans — the majority of whom have long been vocal in their opposition to gay marriage — for the most part have remained silent as the court battles have played out.

The momentum and public support of this debate is clearly on the side of marriage equality, with confident supporters touting the inevitability of same-sex marriage in Colorado and across the country.

And as the issue moves further away from their party, Republicans seeking statewide office rarely talk about gay marriage — and when they do it's clear they don't want to talk about it at all.

Republicans who support marriage equality believe that it's time for the party to stop fighting against an issue that is becoming a losing battle.

“It very much demonstrates while Republicans make a claim to be a party of liberty and personal freedom, this is a position that doesn't square with that at all,” said Mario Nicolais, a Jefferson County Republican who has played a key role in same-sex partnership legislation and litigation.

“The rise of Libertarians is due in large part because people cannot stand Republicans' position on marriage equality. I think it's turning off a lot of folks in the party.”

Gay marriage script flips

Earlier this month, reporters' email inboxes were flooded with laudatory statements from Democratic officeholders and candidates in key races following an Adams County District Court judge's ruling that the state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Republican Attorney General John Suthers issued statements regarding his plans to appeal that and other related court rulings.

But other Republicans weren't exactly racing to the nearest microphone to weigh in on the decisions.

“I'm assuming they understand it's one of the things that makes them looks mean and the Democrats have done a really good job of making them look mean,” said state Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen.

Gerou, who is not seeking re-election this fall, was one of only three Republican lawmakers to vote for legislation that created civil unions last year.

Gerou — who has been known to take positions that irk members of her own party — believes that many Republicans' stances or silence on gay issues is hurting the party.

“There is a small minority of people that are controlling the message in the Republican Party, and quite honestly I think it can kill the party because that's not the way that most people feel,” she said. “The public doesn't believe in absolutes.”

Nicolais agrees, but he learned the hard way how gay-rights issues can manifest in a Republican primary.

Nicolais — an attorney who played a key role in Republican redistricting efforts three years ago — looked to be a formidable general-election opponent to Democratic state Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, who represents Senate District 22.

But Nicolais couldn't get past his primary challenger Tony Sanchez, who won the race by a sizable margin. The Nicolais campaign was hurt by mailers from social conservative groups that blasted Nicolais' support of civil unions. Nicolais led a group of conservatives in supporting the legislation and he also has played a role in marriage-equality litigation that is making its way through the court system.

Nicolais said his party doesn't do itself any favors when it comes across as being intolerant on an issue where its views are among the public minority.

“When an issue like this is trending so severely in one direction, it doesn't make us look good,” he said.

Nicolais said that Republicans risk losing younger members, a group that is much more inclined to support marriage equality than older Republicans.

“A lot of those people will not listen to a single thing that a politician says if they don't support their friends who they've grown up with,” he said.

Turnaround in 10 years

Sen. Mark Udall is among the many Democrats who praised the recent court rulings. Chris Harris of the Udall campaign said he is pleased that the issue is moving so quickly in the direction of marriage equality.

That's even more remarkable, Harris said, because it was only 10 years ago that gay marriage was used a successful wedge issue by Republicans nationwide in a country that wasn't ready for marriage equality.

“We saw in 2004 Republicans using their anti-gay messaging to benefit them,” Harris said. “It's remarkable and remarkably positive that the tide has turned so quickly.”

The Udall campaign has attacked the senator's opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, as being on the wrong side of this issue — using the marriage equality issue to their advantage in a way that would have been akin to political suicide just 10 years ago.

“I think they know they are out of step with voters and certainly out of step with history,” Harris said.

Gardner campaign spokesman Alex Siciliano responded with previous statements that the congressman has made regarding same-sex marriage. Rather than address the issue of gay marriage directly, Gardner instead took issue with Democrats whom he believes are guilty of demagoguery.

“While others may seek to divide Colorado on these sensitive issues, you won't be hearing any rhetoric from me like that during this campaign,” Gardner said. “I believe strongly that we must treat each other with dignity and respect and that we deserve a U.S. senator who aims to bring people together, not pull them apart.”

It is rare nowadays for Republicans who are against same-sex marriage to voice overt moral concerns with homosexuality, another indication that the debate has evolved.
Many Republicans instead hold the position that government doesn't belong in the marriage business to begin with.

“I know during the civil-unions debate I was conveniently labeled as someone who opposed the legislation because I didn't agree with those life choices,” said state Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “But really the opposition is, I don't think it's right that government is involved in relationships that define people.”

Holbert said heterosexual marriage is a “good, productive thing for our society” because opposite-sex couples can procreate. And if same-sex marriage does become a reality in Colorado, he doesn't want lawmakers playing any role.

“Clearly, in my district I represent a majority of voters who support traditional marriage,” Holbert said. “I think that is true throughout Douglas County. But I would imagine some of those people would be more acceptable with a court's decision on the constitutionality on the issue rather than the Legislature defining relationships.”

But Gerou said it is that kind of talk that is hurting the party.

“The more the minority is doing what they're doing, the smaller they will become,” she said.