A year after the US Supreme Court’s narrow 5-4 ruling redefining marriage, many of the elite in the Republican Party are anxious to declare “the marriage issue” settled. It’s a common refrain from high-ranking Republicans: “the Supreme Court has spoken,” and the party should move on to other issues. The trouble for the echo chamber of corporate lobbyists, paid political consultants, wealthy donors, and media personalities who constantly push this narrative is that the actual Republican Party—the tens of millions of Americans who vote in elections—do not buy the refrain, and they regularly hold accountable those who do.
Anne Zerr is the latest example. A state house member in Missouri, Zerr was one of three Republicans who refused to support SJR 39, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would protect supporters of marriage from being punished by government for refusing to be part of same-sex “marriage.” SJR 39 is essentially the Missouri version of the First Amendment Defense Act pending in Congress. Grassroots activists had pushed the measure through the state senate to protect the bakers, florists, photographers, innkeepers, and others who have been targeted in other states with lawsuits, fines, and financial and reputational ruin from facing a similar fate in Missouri. SJR 39 would have let voters decide the issue. But when LGBT activists and their allies in corporate America expressed their opposition, Zerr caved and helped kill the proposal.
Unfortunately for Anne Zerr, she then faced voters in a Republican primary race for an open state Senate seat. Social conservatives saw an opportunity to send a message to the echo chamber by opposing her. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) funded mailers and phone calls targeting Zerr for her refusal to allow voters to protect supporters of marriage. And ordinary voters responded. NOM endorsed her main opponent, conservative businessman and devout Catholic Bill Eigel, who supported SJR 39. On August 2nd, Eigel defeated Zerr in the Republican primary.
Zerr is not the first Republican to pay with her career for following the urgings of the elite to abandon marriage. She is just the latest.
It’s rarely covered by the media, but the political landscape is littered with the wrecked careers of Republicans who abandoned the party’s commitment to marriage as it has always existed, which is a foundational institution of virtually every faith tradition on the planet.
New York enacted same-sex marriage only because four Republicans in the state senate listened to the political elite and wealthy donors and voted against their party platform and the wishes of their constituents. They were promised, and received, big-time fundraising help from Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Wall Street billionaires. But none of that mattered. Conservatives and marriage supporters like NOM focused voters on their betrayal. An unprecedented coalition of people with diverse beliefs and backgrounds came together to hold these legislators accountable—including African American and Hispanic clergy, the orthodox Jewish community, New York’s Conservative Party, and longtime GOP activists. Today, all four Republicans who for voted for gay “marriage” are now former senators. Despite all of the Wall Street money, grassroots activists were able to spread the word about the betrayal these four senators committed—and the voters responded.
This phenomenon is not limited to state legislative races. In 2014, two prominent gay Republicans were recruited by GOP leaders in Washington to run for congressional seats in California (Carl DeMaio) and Massachusetts (Richard Tisei). Both made support for gay “marriage” a prominent feature in their election campaigns. As a result, social conservatives opposed them both, some going so far as to endorse their Democratic opponents on the theory that the lesser of two evils was to have a bad Democrat serve for two years rather than a bad Republican serve for decades. DeMaio and Tisei each raised millions, but both were defeated.
A similar thing has happened in races for the US Senate. In California, Republican Tom Campbell, a former state legislator and member of Congress, came out in support of redefining marriage. Social conservatives funded TV ads against him, and he lost a competitive GOP US Senate primary as a result. The same thing happened in New Hampshire, when NOM funded an ad campaign against wealthy businessman Bill Binnie, who thought gay “marriage” was his ticket to the US Senate. Binnie was defeated. This past cycle, Monica Wehby was the Republican nominee for US Senate in Oregon and promptly aired a TV commercial announcing her support for redefining marriage. Conservatives responded by openly opposing her, and Wehby was trounced.
Meanwhile, US Senate candidates in competitive races who stood firm in their support for marriage—often against the wishes of corporate interests and the consulting class—were rewarded. Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Thom Tillis in North Carolina both benefited from independent expenditure campaigns from groups like NOM in winning their elections.
Lest you conclude that this is a battle between social conservative money and corporate money, it’s not primarily the money that matters. Social conservatives are always outspent by the corporate interests, and often badly. What matters is the support of the voters. Once they are alerted to where the candidates stand, they respond. A modest degree of spending by social conservatives produces an outsized response because voters deeply care about the issue.
It’s not only partisan candidates who have seen this effect. In Iowa, three sitting members of the state supreme court, including its chief justice, were removed from the bench by voters furious with their ruling imposing gay “marriage” in that state. An aggressive campaign opposing their judicial retention was mounted by social conservatives to alert voters to their judicial misdeeds.
It should be acknowledged that these races often involve more than the marriage issue. There is usually a range of issues at play in any contested race, whether for the state legislature or Congress. But unquestionably, marriage was a critical issue in all of these contests. Marriage was the issue that drove conservatives to oppose and ultimately defeat incumbents like Anne Zerr in Missouri.
Finally, it is also important to note the importance that support for marriage played most recently in the GOP when grassroots Republican activists made their views clear in crafting the national Republican Party platform last month in Cleveland. Despite an organized and well-funded campaign by Wall Street billionaires and corporate lobbyists to “modernize” the party’s official position on marriage, convention delegates utterly rejected the notion. The 2016 GOP platform is the most pro-traditional marriage platform ever adopted. It specifically calls for reversing the Obergefell ruling redefining marriage. It explicitly condemns as the product of activist judges the rulings on marriage in both Obergefell and the Windsor case that overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and it calls for the appointment of Supreme Court justices who will reject their reasoning. It endorses the First Amendment Defense Act to protect supporters of marriage from governmental persecution. And it calls for a constitutional amendment to return to the states their right to define marriage solely as the union of one man and one woman.
Never fans of social issues to begin with, it’s a safe bet that the consulting class, corporate lobbyists, and wealthy donors will ignore the mountain of evidence all around them that rank and file Republican activists and voters revere marriage and will act to defend it. But Republican candidates should come to understand that succumbing to the pleadings of the elite echo chamber can come at a very high price: their very political careers.
Frank Schubert is president of Mission: Public Affairs and is the political director for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).