Republicans' No-Fingerprints Strategy on Gay Marriage

Rich Miller, author of the Capitol Fax blog covering Illinois politics, writes for the Chicago Sun-Times that Illinois Republicans want gay marriage passed as soon as possible. But not because they favor gay marriage.

The reason so many Republicans would like to see the bill passed is because they know that with the huge, new Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers, that it’s eventually going to pass anyway. They want to get this issue out of the way and behind them as soon as possible. The issue is trending hard against the GOP’s historical opposition, and they want the thing off the table before it starts to hurt them.

In other words: Republicans want gay marriage enacted in such a way that they get as little credit or blame as possible, while assuring the issue falls off the political radar. Call it the no-fingerprints strategy: They don't care if gay marriage becomes law so long as they can say somebody else did it.

It's not just Illinois; we're seeing similar phenomena with Republican lawmakers in blue-leaning states, including New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

In New York, the bill legalizing gay marriage passed through the Republican-held State Senate in 2011, and national coverage tended to focus on the four Republican state senators who voted yes and put the bill over the top. But the Republican who was most important to passage was one who voted no: then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. The organizing rules of the New York State Senate vested full control over the legislative calendar in Skelos; if he had wanted to block gay marriage, all he had to do was refuse to schedule a vote. Instead, he allowed the bill to pass.

Skelos's acquiescence reflects a couple of facts: Blocking gay marriage was not an actual ideological priority for New York Republicans, and Senate Republicans judged that they were better off getting the marriage issue off the table rather than having to fight Democratic challengers backed with pro-marriage money in 2012. Gay marriage's enactment in New York is less a story of a handful of Republicans being won over than one of Republicans as a whole being scared to have the fight.

In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed a gay marriage bill last year. Instead he offered to place gay marriage on a referendum ballot. In most states, such offers have been a ploy for gay marriage opponents to indirectly kill marriage equality. But Christie is right when he says that a same-sex marriage referendum would win in New Jersey. Two different polls in 2012 found gay marriage winning by about 20 points.

In other words, Christie is willing to let gay marriage become the law in New Jersey. He doesn't seem alarmed by the prospect that New Jersey residents might let gays marry, and he shows no indication of planning to campaign vigorously for a "no" vote. He just isn't willing to take credit for gay marriage's enactment. (New Jersey Democrats have so far declined to take him up on the referendum offer.)

Democrats in New Hampshire legalized gay marriage in 2009. Then, in 2010, veto-proof Republican majorities swept into both houses of the state's legislature. Some social conservatives were eager to repeal gay marriage, but Republican leadership put off a vote on the topic until 2012. Then-Majority Leader Representative D.J. Bettencourt said in 2011 that a fight over gay marriage "has the potential to take important focus and energy away from our focus on the budget."

Finally, in March 2012, the New Hampshire House of Representatives took up a gay marriage repeal bill. It was soundly defeated, with Democrats strongly opposed and Republicans divided about evenly on both sides. This defeat has allowed New Hampshire Republicans to stop relitigating the marriage issue in a state where only about a quarter of voters want to repeal gay marriage.

These are blue states, but the map of places where Republicans just want to get out of gay marriage's way keeps expanding. Back in Illinois, Pat Brady, chairman of the state's Republican Party, recently endorsed gay marriage. This caused consternation among social conservatives, but Miller suggests he did so with the tacit approval of senior Republican lawmakers in the state.

Tom Cross, who leads the Republican minority in the Illinois House of Representatives, has strongly defended Brady against efforts to oust him as chairman over the marriage issue. He says an attempt to remove Brady "reaffirms people's worst fears about our party. I think we bragged about being the big tent party over the years. And there are going to be people that adamantly oppose gay marriage and people who support it. And we need to be the party that says, 'Hey, that's fine.'"

Cross's comments embody the goal that Republican lawmakers have in an increasing number of states: Straddle the gay marriage issue in a way that placates the social conservatives who vote in today's primaries, without alienating the gay-friendly electorates that will vote in tomorrow's general elections.

Politicians like Skelos and Christie think they have found a way to thread this needle. The only downside is that they have to allow gay marriage to become law.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Email him and follow him on Twitter.)

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