Prominent Gay Republicans Helped Smooth the Way for Marriage Bill

Behind the success of the Respect for Marriage Act was a group of prominent Republicans, some of them gay, who worked to persuade the G.O.P. senator that her acceptance was a political winner.

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WASHINGTON – When the Senate passed landmark legislation last month mandating federal recognition of same-sex marriage, the vote was hailed as a rare moment of bipartisanship at a time of deep political polarization in the country.

But the narrow coalition of 12 Republicans who joined all Democrats in supporting the measure — which cleared Congress on Thursday for final passage in the House of Representatives, sending it to President Biden — did not emerge spontaneously in a flurry of cross-party harmony.

Behind the scenes, a group of influential Republican donors and operatives, including some of the party’s most prominent gay leaders with years of experience pushing their party to embrace L.G.B.T.Q. rights, teamed up with the bill’s advocates in Congress for a coordinated $1.7 million campaign to convince the G.O.P. senators that their support would give them a political advantage.

Their quiet work helps explain how a bill that would have recognized same-sex marriage nationwide became the subject of a political maneuver in an election season that few expected would lead to passage by an overwhelming majority of senators and an unexpected victory for the gay rights movement. which will be one of the final acts of the Democrat-controlled Congress.

“Domestic maneuvering can only go so far without external mobilization,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted Thursday before signing the bill, the last formal act of Congress before it is sent to the White House to become law.

The push was led by Ken Mehlman, President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign manager and former Republican National Committee chairman who came out as gay in 2010, and Centerline Action, a centrist nonprofit funded by him and Reginald Brown, a White House counsel to Mr. Bush, among others.

It included flooding the phone lines of Republican senators with calls from voters in favor of the same-sex marriage measure, presenting a poll showing that voters were more likely to support the bill’s proponent than someone who opposed it, and a public pressure campaign aimed at demonstrating widespread conservative support for the bill. .

“When this came up in the House of Representatives, we immediately went into action and reached out to all those operatives, supporters and activists who were engaged in this issue and kind of rallied the gang,” said James Dozier, president of Centerline. board. A former Republican congressional aide, Mr. Dozier is married to a man and has long championed same-sex marriage rights.

The work began in July, after 47 Republicans — a surprisingly large number — joined Democrats in supporting the bill when it initially passed the House. While the G.O.P. supporters made up less than a quarter of the party’s contingent in that chamber, the degree of bipartisanship was enough to turn the measure from a mere messaging exercise into a serious legislative effort.

But the bill still needed at least 10 Republican supporters to advance in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to advance on most major bills, a threshold that has frustrated many bipartisan efforts.

The bill’s success reflects a tectonic shift in public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage that has occurred over the past decade, transforming it from a divisive political issue to one that has become widely embraced by members of both parties. But the Republican strategists behind the effort knew that passing that change would be crucial for the G.O.P. lawmakers who might otherwise still find accepting the right to same-sex marriage too risky.

“Valid and legal same-sex marriage is particularly popular among critical voting blocs, such as suburban voters, as well as young and middle-aged voters,” said Alicia Downs, a Republican pollster who conducted state-by-state polling for Centerline. She said more than 60 percent of suburban voters believe same-sex marriage should be recognized as valid by law.

Mr. Mehlman, working with Centerline, helped commission a poll in nine states that identified Republican senators who could be persuaded to support the Respect for Marriage Act but who were publicly undecided: Alaska, Missouri, West Virginia, Iowa, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana, Utah and Wyoming.

In Indiana, the data showed that one in four voters were more likely to support the senator. The poll found that in Iowa, 76 percent of voters “are more likely to support a senator who votes for R.M.A. or report that there is no negative impact on their vote.”

The results were shared with senators from those states and coordinated with an outreach campaign in which activists mobilized voters to call their senators and express support for the measure. In total, the group went through 30,000 calls from Republican constituents for advocacy, hitting 16 Senate offices.

“In my experience, the most important policy decisions are not made only in Washington,” Mr. Mehlman said. “If you can take the pulse of voters and congressional districts and mobilize activists and others, you will be very persuasive.”

In the end, at least one senator from each of the surveyed states voted for the bill.

Susan Collins of Maine, who was the lead Republican negotiator in the Senate, credited Mr. Mehlman and the outside group with helping her party cross the finish line.

“It’s all helped strengthen our supporters and certainly helped us get past the magic number of 10,” Ms. Collins said in an interview. “It made our fans feel less alone, but it also played a key role in getting the margin. It gave Republicans who were on the bubble a sense of comfort.”

Mr. Mehlman, who has worked to build greater acceptance among Republicans for gay- and transgender-friendly policies, also relied on a network of Republicans he enlisted in 2019 to urge the Supreme Court to declare that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly prohibits discrimination against homosexuals, lesbians and transgender persons in the workplace.

“We have a network of individuals who live in those states, are active in those states, who also believe in the freedom to marry,” Mr. Mehlman said. “They were more than happy to make their case to senators either directly or via an op-ed.”

Advocates also made personal appeals for the law, with arguments tailored to conservative audiences. Back in July, after it passed the House, Mr. Mehlman and Theodore Olson, a former attorney general, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal urging the Senate to follow suit and arguing that “as conservatives we should promote freedom and limited government. That includes supporting the freedom of American citizens to marry the person they love.”

The group took out a full-page ad in The Journal in September, publishing a letter signed by 450 prominent Republicans who support the bill, including Olympia Snowe, a former Republican senator from Maine; Tony Fabrizio, G.O.P. a pollster who worked for former President Donald J. Trump; Ben Ginsberg, prominent Republican attorney; Mary Cheney, the openly gay and married daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney; Tom Ridge, former secretary of homeland security under Mr. Bush; and Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.

Ms. Collins said the effort was critical, especially given the pressure some Republicans were under to oppose the bill.

“What I’ve heard from at least one of my Republican colleagues is that he’s lost significant support among big donors in his state,” she said.

Perhaps the most surprising vote was for Sen. Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming, especially after Wyoming’s other Republican senator, John Barrasso, voted against it.

Ms. Lummis, who is a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, was pressed by the Wyoming Pastors Network to “reverse course” after she voted “yes” on a key test vote that cleared the way for the bill to advance in the Senate. Wyoming G.O.P. he also admonished her for supporting a bill she argued would threaten the state party’s platform.

“For the sake of our nation today and its survival, we do well to take this step,” she said on the Senate floor last month, delivering an emotional speech about the need for more tolerance during what she called “turbulent times for our nation.”

Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting.