The GOP, Transitioning Before Our Very Eyes

7.10.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

More evidence the Republican Party's embracing a new face.

(Has GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch changed his tune on equality?)

In the 1950s and 1960s, as segregation waned and as their ballot box mojo dwindled, the Republican Party decided it would be a swell idea to rebuild their ranks with Southerners who were against civil rights. The GOP strategy, a so-called Southern Strategy that rested on states's rights, ultimately worked, won over many Democrats/Dixiecrats and wrested the region from Democratic control. Though few voters realized it at the time, those years -- particularly Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 presidential campaign and Richard Nixon's long sought win in 1968 -- marked a radical political realignment the country and the birth of the Republican Party we know today. That same party would go on to use similar tactics when using gay rights as a wedge issue.

There's no shortage of evidence and reportage on how the GOP's shifting again. Few mention though that today's shift involves many of the same themes as the Southern Strategy era: states's rights, an evolving society and culture. The hints of this change became clear when Dick Cheney came out for marriage equality, a sin for many Republicans. While a few comrades followed in the years since, it wasn't until recently that we saw conservative fundraisers like Paul Singer and GOP lawmakers such Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Liza Murkowski (Alaska), and Mark Kirk (Illinois) come out for same-sex nuptials. That trend, anyone can tell you, signals the end of the GOP's virulently anti-gay era, an era history will most likely bookend with the Supreme Court's DOMA decision. There will still be a number of conservatives who are stuck in their homophobic ways or who play anti-gay to win votes, and there's tons of work to be done on a state level, particularly in the South, but there's very little possibility the Republican Party will see GOP presidential candidates signing a "marriage pledge" as they did during the 2012 election.

Today saw another instance of GOP transition. As you may have heard, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee voted 15-7 to send ENDA [aka the Freedom to Work Act] to a full vote. This was the first time ever that a congressional committee has given the green light to a trans-inclusive version of this bill, and of the 15 "yea" votes, three were Republicans. Sen. Murkowski supported it and Sen. Kirk was already co-sponsor, a big step considering the Republicans used to cry bloody murder over the mere mention of gender identity. But the most telling "yea" came from Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who was so against marriage equality that as recently as April he suggested the federal government grant national civil unions to thwart full-blown marriage equality.

Like a traditional Republican, Hatch says he supports the bill's "robust religious exemption," he voted for it because "it prohibits discrimination that should not occur in the workplace, it protects the rights of religious entities, and minimizes legal burdens on employers.” He's not suddenly a cheerleader for trans rights, but he's not opposing transgender Americans's humanity, either. Fifty-three Senators have officially sponsored this bill, including Kirk and Susan Collins of Maine, and it seems like Murkowski and Hatch will support it during the big vote. That means 55 Senators, five shy of blocking a GOP veto, are already backing a trans-inclusive bill. And Greg Sargent at the Washington Post believes that Hatch's vote will "induce" other Republicans, as well. "Hatch’s support was expected but it could bode well for the bill’s overall chances in the Senate," he writes. "Supporters think a few more Republican Senators might be induced to come out for it, such as Dean Heller and Rob Portman (who has come out for marriage equality)." The House will be a different story, but it's clear the GOP has no interest in looking like haters.

That of course is the party's new unofficial directive: don't be haters. As the Republican National Committee said in their December 2012 "Growth and Opportunity" report: "[We need to] make sure young people do not see the Party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view."

"Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be."

For so many years the GOP thought smearing the queer and campaigning on discrimination were enough to win elections. And they were right, for a time. But now the party and the rest of the nation know that's not the way the States work. The GOP has admitted it needs to get with the pro-equality program if it wants to continue competing in elections, and we're seeing them put that plan into action. And it looks pretty good.

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