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Politico: In Trump, pro-gay rights Republicans see a new hope

By Kyle Cheney

Republican gay rights advocates, long sidelined by the party’s socially conservative core, suddenly see an opening to move the GOP away from its hardline opposition to same-sex marriage. And they think Donald Trump is the candidate to help them do it.

Trump buoyed Republican LGBTQ activists with his defense of the gay community in the wake of Sunday’s mass murder at a gay nightclub. “Ask yourself, who is really the friend of women and the LGBTQ community. Donald Trump with his actions, or Hillary Clinton with her words?” he said Monday, in a speech condemning the Orlando attack, which left 49 club-goers dead at the hands of a man who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Trump followed it up with a tweet Tuesday in which he thanked LGBTQ Americans and said: “I will fight for you.”

The sudden warmth from a Republican standard-bearer comes amid a push to moderate the party platform’s current conservative stances on social issues — an effort bankrolled by some of the Republican Party’s biggest donors. That effort faces fierce opposition from social conservatives, who are looking to preserve the party’s position that regards same-sex marriage as an affront to social order and call for a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. But the more centrist elements in the party say Trump’s welcoming tone toward LGBTQ Americans and a sudden outpouring of national support for the gay community could move the debate in their direction.

“I believe we truly hit a tipping point in the LGBTQ equality movement in the United States in that for so long, you had Republicans reluctant to even mention the phrase ‘LGBTQ community’ and here we have our presumptive Republican presidential nominee not only using that phrase but directly expressing sympathy,” said Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans. “If Republicans try to position themselves as being justified in maintaining harsh anti-gay rhetoric in the platform … you better believe that Democrats are going to demonize them any chance they get.”

John Fluharty, an openly gay adviser to the Delaware GOP, said de-emphasizing language opposing same-sex marriage could invite gay Americans to vote for Republicans in November.

“Trump has a real opportunity to help expand the party by pushing Republicans to accept the reality of what happened in Orlando,” Fluharty said. “He can reset the clock for Republicans on LGBTQQ issues if he’s willing to bring down the hammer on reactionary elements in the Party, and drive home the point that Orlando was not just an attack on America, but it was an attack aimed directly at American LGBTQQ citizens …Republicans have to admit this reality and it needs to be reflected in the platform with language that supports ending discrimination and expanding equality.”

Conservatives, though, aren’t prepared to give any ground on the issue. Most members of the Republican convention’s 112-member Platform Committee, they note, are likely to be hardcore conservative activists. Even backers of a moderate approach acknowledge that disadvantage. Ted Cruz’s protracted battle with Trump for influence at the convention led to the appointment of hundreds of conservative delegates, from Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli to Louisiana’s Tony Perkins, who will have outsized voices in the party’s debate. If even a quarter of them are willing to strike the party’s approach to gay marriage – the minimum number needed to force a debate of the issue on the convention floor – it would be a surprise, they said.

“Forces may try to use this as an opportunity and I think it would be a mistake,” said Ed Martin, president of the Eagle Forum, an evangelical group fighting to defend conservative planks at the Republican convention. “If you look at the makeup of the platform committee, it’s full of rock-ribbed conservatives. Donald Trump and his people know that.”

And Trump hasn’t expressed any willingness to spend political capital on changing the party’s platform, a divisive fight at a time when he’s trying to focus his energy on beating Hillary Clinton in the general election. Asked whether he would consider backing efforts to moderate the Republican Party platform on marriage, Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said, “Mr. Trump continues his outreach to coalitions and communities all over the country. There has been tremendous support for Mr. Trump and we are excited to see that continue to grow.”

Throughout the campaign, Trump has alternately heratened and dismayed LGBTQ advocates. As recently as last week at a social conservative political gathering in Washington, Trump suggested he’d appoint judges that would support the traditional definition of marriage. And last year, he slammed the Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize same sex marriage last year. But he also was critical of North Carolina Republicans for adopting a bill aimed at restricting bathroom use by transgender residents, distancing himself from the conservative position on the issue. He’s repeatedly expressed fondness for gay people and touted decisions to hire gay people and support same-sex relationship. His long history of giving to Democratic politicians has raised flags for some conservatives about where his sympathies lie.

The party’s platform, approved in 2012, calls same-sex marriage “an assault on the foundations of our society” and urges a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. But since then, the Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, and national polls have shown Americans growing more tolerant gay unions. More than half of all Americans support them, according to a Pew poll last month, including a third of Republicans and 61 percent of independent voters. Younger Americans, too, are far more open to same-sex marriage than their older counterparts.
Sunday’s massacre, the worst mass shooting in American history and deadliest terror attack since Sept. 11, 2001. In its aftermath, leaders on both sides of the aisle rallied around the LGBTQ community in Orlando and expressed solidarity with their families.

Conservatives who spoke to POLITICO said there’s nothing incongruous about condemning violence aimed at the gay community while opposing same-sex marriage on policy, religious or moral grounds.
“Aspects of the Islamic religion adhered to by fanatics and jihadists agree that gays should be murdered. ISIS murders gays regularly because they believe that’s part of their religion. We should oppose that,” said Jim Bopp, a conservative member of the convention’s Platform Committee. “There’s all sorts of people that I disagree with that I would stand with if someone was trying to murder them.”

A spokeswoman for Cuccinelli added that though he was “deeply saddened by the senseless tragedy in Orlando … traditional marriage has always been a key part of the Party platform and ideals.”

“As a conservative, Ken continues to support that position. Whether it will prove to be a contested agenda at the Convention remains to be seen,” said the spokeswoman Mallory Rascher.

Still, there are signs that proponents of same-sex marriage are going to be able to mobilize a degree of support at the convention. One member of the Platform Committee and supporter of same-sex marriage rights, who requested anonymity to describe ongoing efforts, said there will be a constituency within the committee to ease the party’s stance toward gay marriage.

“There will certainly be members that are arguing for some more inclusive — or at least less exclusive language with regard to LGBTQ issues,” said the committee member. “My hope, as a supporter of those issues and of equality generally, would be that we would be able to make some progress within our platform.”

Another Platform Committee member, Pennsylvania’s Jim McErlane, said he’s hopeful that the committee moves to “downplay social issues.” He noted that in 2008, when he also served on the Platform Committee, the convention adopted a stance on stem cell research that conflicted with John McCain’s position — a headache for the candidate and campaign. He doesn’t want to repeat history in 2016.

“I really want to stay away from that,” he said. “We have enough really difficult issues with national security issues and jobs.”

The American Unity Fund has largely spearheaded the organization to remove language in the party’s platform that condemns same-sex marriage. The group, funded by billionaire GOP financiers like Paul Singer, Dan Loeb, Seth Klarman and Cliff Asness, has been pushing for a middle-ground approach – striking the anti-LGBTQ language in the party’s platform and replacing it with an acknowledgment of the widely varying opinions on the issue.

“I think Donald Trump has his finger on the pulse of the Republican Party. I think he is reflecting the sentiment that people have about LGBTQ issues, and in reflecting that he’s showing that it’s time to move on,” said Tyler Deaton, a senior advisor to the effort. “He’s said that in many different ways. He says that in a style that only Trump can do it.”

“I think that the language in the platform right now is very mean-spirited,” he said. “Our objective is for the Republican Party to embrace mutual respect [for the] diverse points of view on civil marriage.”
Bopp rejected the notion that Trump’s response to the attacks signaled a new openness to a moderate approach toward LGBTQ issues at the convention. Conservatives, he said, would have no problem defending their stance on traditional marriage.

“We’re in favor of equal rights, not special rights,” he said. The attack, he said, “has nothing to do with traditional marriage” and the response by Trump and other Republicans was about standing against “Islamic terrorists killing gays.”

“The guy didn’t go shoot up a marriage center or shoot up a gay marriage,” Bopp said. “He was murdering them because they exist.”

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