This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on February 20, 2013.
A new review of eight states where marriage laws have been recently amended to extend the franchise to gay men and women found that less than half of the Republican lawmakers in those states who supported the effort no longer hold office today, stoking intraparty bickering on whether support for marriage equality is a career-ender for Republicans.
Of the 47 GOP lawmakers who cast decisive votes for gay marriage in the last three years, only 21 remain in office, according to a survey by The Associated Press.
Some retired outright or were felled during Republican primary contests, while many others still were defeated during general election bouts. But the survey nonetheless gave gay-marriage-supporting GOPers a terminal diagnosis.
“Gay marriage support has risks for GOP lawmakers,” read the story’s tragically naive headline.
Public opinion has shifted notably on the issue in the last decade. A plurality of Americans, most recently clocked at 48 percent, now support same-sex marriage, while 43 percent oppose it. In particular, younger voters, even those with a generally conservative political bent, have expressed overwhelming support for legalizing same-sex marriage.
The shift has not taken place in a political vacuum, of course: a growing number of Republican pols have likewise endorsed it.
Now, that is not to say the party has uniformly draped itself in the colors of the rainbow. Far from it, as liberty-conscious Republicans must tangle with social conservatives ready to stage a palace coup.
But a Republican vote for marriage equality is not legislative-assisted suicide.
The report’s GOP premortem is foolishly predicated on the assumption that what was will always be, even as opinion surveys have found wide margins of support for gay marriage.
A full 60 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage in 2004, according to numbers by Pew Research. Fewer than one in three polled expressed any level of support. Constitutional amendments and referenda appeared on the ballot in 11 states that year, which many political observers believe was critical to clinching the reelection of George W. Bush.
But as acceptance for same-sex marriage increases, the risk for Republicans who accept it diminishes by the day.
In its review of the GOP’s alleged gay marriage-related losses, the AP assumes all else equal. “In New York, only one of four Republican senators who supported gay marriage is still in the Legislature,” the AP’s Patrick Condon wrote last week. “One lost a primary, one retired and one lost the general election after narrowly winning a bitter primary.”
Whereas one incumbent who voted against gay marriage won reelection and another who voted for it lost, this singular division is necessarily writ large across the two contests, or so the news agency surmises.
But incumbents lose each election cycle and there is no data to prove these defeats were uniquely born of votes for gay marriage and not, say, poorly run campaigns or moderated positions on taxes and spending.
The debate over marriage equality is among the most emotionally charged in the American political scene, with actors on both sides of the divide expressing the firm opinions of their conscience.
To distill the question into unfounded, sensationalized suppositions is a profoundly unfair exercise to supporters and opponents alike. The issue should be won or loss on its constitutional merits, not shallow political calculus where x equals unicorn.
Fortunately not all Republicans conform to media bias, for if every Republican weighed civil rights with political expedience, Abraham Lincoln would never have freed the slaves. There was risk in that, too. Ask John Wilkes Booth. But the political and personal risk did not diminish the moral imperative.