Bipartisan Group Targets Moderates In Push For Gay Marriage

11/07/2011 08:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2012

WASHINGTON -- A unlikely group of high-profile Republicans and Democrats is banding together for a new campaign aimed at swaying moderates in support of gay marriage.

Third Way, a moderate think tank in Washington, D.C., on Monday launched its "Commitment Campaign," a national effort to arm lawmakers and advocates with talking points in support of gay marriage based on what new research shows: that people who identify as moderates are more likely to embrace gay marriage if it is framed as an issue of love and commitment, not just one of rights and benefits. The idea behind the narrowly targeted campaign is that more attention to "the movable middle" will solidify a key bloc of support for gay marriage, something that could influence future Supreme Court decisions on the matter.

Among those pitching the new campaign: former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, former New Jersey Governor and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman (R), Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (I), Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

"Commitment, responsibility, and fidelity are values that the Republican Party has long championed, and they are values that animate my personal support for allowing gay couples to marry," Mehlman says in the campaign materials. Mehlman announced he was gay in August 2010, after stepping down as RNC chairman.

"Third Way's Commitment Campaign will be among the most strategic and effective national efforts to broaden support for marriage, with a unique focus on winning over moderates, Independents, conservatives and Republicans," Mehlman said. "I am proud to team up with Third Way in our shared efforts to enable all Americans to commit to marriage."

Whitman says in the campaign materials, "The Commitment Campaign can help to bring an important message to moderate and conservative Americans: allowing gay couples to promise lifetime commitment and fidelity to each other is something we should all embrace."

"By broadening support for the commitments of gay couples, we can help to refocus our political energies on the real problems of the day."

Third Way kicked off its campaign on Monday by distributing materials to every House and Senate office. From there, the group is lining up briefings with various factions of people on Capitol Hill, including gay and lesbian staffers, the LGBT Equality Caucus and one-on-one meetings with lawmakers who may not be ready to get out in front on the issue but, privately, want to know more about it.

The campaign also comes in advance of Thursday's landmark, albeit largely symbolic, Senate Judiciary Committee vote on legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The vote is expected to pass the committee but stands no chance of clearing the full Senate or the House. Advocates from Third Way were scheduled to meet with Democratic committee staff on Monday to prep them for the hearing.

The message that Third Way urges lawmakers to use with "the middle" is simple enough: polls show that moderates equate marriage with commitment, many aren't clear on whether gay couples want to marry for rights versus love, and many need to be convinced that gay people want to get married for the same reasons as straight people.

Lanae Erickson, Deputy Director for Social Policy & Politics at Third Way, said right now is a pivotal moment for shaping the way the public views gay marriage. For starters, opponents of gay marriage in states like Maine and Minnesota are already "moving really fast" in putting together campaigns to influence the Nov. 2012 elections, she said, which means gay rights advocates need to counter their message. In addition, she said, the issue is likely to end up before the Supreme Court in the next couple of years, which means now is the time to win over the public.

It would help moderate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to "feel confident" about voting to legalize gay marriage if he knows he has 53 percent of the country solidly behind him, said Erickson. And while the issue is going to remain divisive no matter what, having a solid majority of support on the issue heading into a high court ruling could minimize the backlash.

"We could either be in a situation where this issue is like Roe v. Wade, where we have majority support but it's still a divisive issue," Erickson said, "or we could make this into Brown v. The Board of Education, where it's tumultuous at the time, but 10 years from now we're going to have huge majorities of support and people will feel like this is just another step in our country's journey."

Debate on the issue has evolved rapidly this year -- for the first time ever, three national surveys found more people in support of gay marriage than not -- and it continues to be an awkward one for congressional Republicans, who may be more reluctant to come out firmly against gay marriage given the changing public opinion. When Attorney General Eric Holder announced in February that he would no longer defend DOMA because the administration concluded it was unconstitutional, House rules allowed for any lawmaker to come to the floor and demand a vote that the House defend the issue in court in place of the administration. Not a single lawmaker came forward. Instead, House GOP leaders huddled in private and made the decision themselves.

Erickson said that incident shows that Republicans may be at a point when they're willing to reconsider their views on an issue they previously used to rally their conservative base.

"They didn't [demand a vote] because they're scared and they know that this is not quite working in their favor anymore," she said. "I was holding my breath, waiting to see if somebody would go down there. And they didn't."

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