OXON HILL, Md. — For an event remembered by its big statements — rabble-rousing speeches and students clad in American-flag shorts — this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference was nearly silent on same-sex marriage and other such issues.
But the low-key treatment spoke loudly about a growing tension between conservatives who want to raise the issue — most of them opposed to gay rights — and those who want to focus on other issues. In a bit of irony, a subject once effectively used by some Republicans against Democrats has now become something of a wedge issue within the Republican Party.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania spoke for those who want to highlight the issue, criticizing Republican leaders who claim they “have to win” by sacrificing traditional positions on social issues.
“They actually mean we have to lose,” Santorum said. “We have to lose those currently unfashionable stances on cultural and limited-government issues.”
Yet many elected officials, including potential 2016 candidates, skirted around gay issues during the three-day gathering outside Washington, D.C. A few, like Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), alluded to the topic with references to controversial remarks from “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson and the management at Chick-fil-A that drew criticism from gay rights proponents.
In recent years, conservatives have adopted a “don’t say gay” policy, said Jimmy LaSalvia, who helped create the conservative gay group GOProud.
“They think if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist,” said LaSalvia, who left the organization last July. “The truth is that a lot of people in the country are talking about it.”
While Americans overall have become increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage, Republicans have shifted more slowly on the issue. According to a Washington Post/ABC News survey published last week, 59% of Americans favor such unions. But among Republicans, only 40% approved of same sex marriage, and 54% opposed it.
The dominant view among Republicans was on display at CPAC during speeches by several social conservative speakers, such as Faith & Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, who reiterated a commitment to publicly defend “the sacred institution of marriage.”
And although Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate, did not directly refer to same-sex marriage in his speech, he said he wanted to talk about “reclaiming marriage as a good for our society” rather than “redefining marriage.”
Conference attendees said in interviews that the Republican divide on gay issues is both ideological and generational, with younger voters more accepting of gay rights. Ben Solem, a self-identified social conservative from Liberty University, said gay rights could “divide the party.”
“You will see a party split on an issue like that because I have a lot of evangelical friends who will not budge,” Solem said. Solem, who is 20, backed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, during the 2012 primaries.
On the other hand, a straw poll at the gathering that rested strongly on the votes of student attendees showed that when asked their political motivations, 78% cited reducing the size and scope of government, and only 12% said they were driven largely by a desire to defend traditional marriage and the unborn.
Gay groups have served as sponsors and exhibitors at past CPAC gatherings but were not a formal presence this year. Although leaders of GOProud attended CPAC 2014, passing out stickers and meeting with attendees, the official conference lineup featured no gay presence among its speakers, sponsorships and exhibits.
The executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, another gay group, criticized CPAC for rebuffing his organization’s efforts to seek “meaningful representation” at the event.
“We are at a point where the conservative movement and Republicans can no longer keep their head in the sand in this issue,” Log Cabin’s Gregory Angelo said in an interview.
In a column for the Daily Caller on Wednesday, he also criticized GOProud for attending the event without any formal recognition.
The American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, worked to beat back any perception of turbulence between the conference and gay conservative groups.
“We have a tradition in the movement of believing in traditional marriage, but we also believe in equal rights for all Americans, in terms of their civil rights,” ACU Chairman Al Cardenas told reporters on Friday. “You will find many people here who are gay, including members of GOProud who registered and attended and are given every opportunity to participate in the convention.”
Cardenas pointed specifically to the attendance of pro-gay-marriage Republicans, including Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and former Vice President Dick Cheney. GOProud co-director Ross Hemminger said his group, which met with Portman during CPAC, has a positive relationship with the ACU.
Despite the official silence, the same-sex marriage debate crept into the conference several times during prepared remarks and panels where concern focused on conflicts with religious liberty.
Cameron Turner, 19, opposes gay marriage but believes gay organizations should have an exhibit booth. Turner, who went to a high school with vocal LGBT groups, said conservatives “want to hear everyone’s ideas.”
Angelo, the Log Cabin executive director, predicted that in coming election cycles, there will be increasing pressure to address gay rights, especially as Republicans attempt to reach out to younger voters.
“This is 2014,” he said. “Individuals who are coming of voting age this year were 8 years old when Massachusetts began recognizing same-sex marriages. This is a demographic the GOP needs, and it’s a demographic overwhelmingly accepting of gay issues.”
But many attendees believe the silence on gay issues reflects how minor an issue gay marriage has become for many conservatives. Jack Gordon, a Republican activist at CPAC, said candidates running for office should focus on the economy rather than “little skirmishes” on social issues.
“The mainstream of people, as is happening in many states, say ‘OK,’” Gordon said of legalizing same-sex marriage. “Eighty percent or 90% of Republicans don’t care.”
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