- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2015

A group of young conservatives is rallying to reshape Republicans’ approach to social issues and particularly to same-sex marriage, arguing that the GOP is chasing away younger voters who would be supporters but for the party’s exclusionary stances.

The young conservatives say many young voters feel forced to choose between the “lesser of two evils” in voting, and a shift within the GOP could entice them into the Republican folds.

“We need more compassion, empathy and tolerance and, unfortunately, sometimes tolerance means tolerance of intolerance,” said Ryan Rauner, a leader of NextGen GOP, who organized an event last week in Arlington, Virginia. “What we can never tolerate is the power of government being used by one group against another because they disagree with their beliefs or their lifestyle. That’s not freedom; that’s not equality.”

The issue of same-sex marriage, which worked to the GOP’s political advantage a decade ago, has flipped, with a record 60 percent of Americans now supporting it, according to Gallup polling released Wednesday. That’s a jump of 5 percentage points since last year and a 20-point jump since 2009.

Among younger Americans, the issue is even more settled, said the conservative activists, who said some lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender voters could even be enticed to leave the Democratic Party if they didn’t feel the GOP was hostile to them.

“There are a lot of LGBT people out there who are brilliant small business owners, who hold to the principles of limited government, strong families, fiscal conservatism and strong national security — things that we as Republicans love — but they don’t have a place in the Republican Party right now,” said Jerri Ann Henry, the campaign manager for Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry. “What’s unfortunate is they also clearly do not have a place in the Democratic Party.”

The issue is increasingly important to voters, though still only 26 percent said it is a make-or-break issue and that a candidate must share their opinion on the issue in order to win their vote.

Among those, support for traditional marriage helps Republicans more than it hurts: 37 percent of those who oppose gay marriage said a candidate must agree with them, compared to only 27 percent who support recognition of same-sex marriage.

“On both ends of the political spectrum, this could make same-sex marriage a more salient issue in the 2016 election than it has been previously,” wrote Gallup’s Justin McCarthy. “While pro-gay marriage voters are more likely to hold a political candidate’s feet to the fire than in the past, there is an even larger bloc of anti-gay marriage voters who could reject a candidate for espousing marriage equality.”

Republican analysts, though, doubted that the 2016 elections will see any major policy shifts for Republicans on the issue, saying that even for most young voters, it’s not a threshold.

“I think that it’s an issue that polls well, but I’m not sure it’s an issue that’s going to vote well,” said Mary Anna Mancuso, a former campaign director for former Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack’s Senate race and founder of Political Hype. “You’re not going to see a candidate come out and base an entire platform centered around marriage equality.”

She said in reaching young voters, harnessing a digital campaign will likely be critical — and she said Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio, two already-announced candidates, have done well on that score.

Alex Patton, owner of Ozean Consulting, said that on a national level, it would be in a candidate’s best interest to stress issues that rank higher on the scale of importance for millennials like job security and growing the economy rather than same-sex marriage.

“It is an issue that they care about, but it’s really low on the issues that they are focused on,” Mr. Patton said.

Still, the issue could matter in certain swing states with large youth populations, such as Florida, he said.

“All of these little small things will add up. None of them will be decisive on a national scale, but it could matter in a state as important as Florida, where the line is razor-thin,” Mr. Patton said. “A tenth of a point here can be the difference between winning and losing.”

The conservatives at the rally said they don’t expect same-sex marriage to be the tipping point in the 2016 election, but they want to see more Republicans embrace it.

“Overwhelmingly, Republicans across the country are still going to be viewed as anti-that, anti-equality and [anti-]marriage, and it’s a shame,” said Sara Coleman, a realtor who attended the rally. “But all you can do is develop these little core groups, let them rise up, and eventually they will become the norm. So in this election, no, I don’t think that marriage equality will be the deciding factor or big issue, but as the nation develops through the course of the years, eventually we will be on the right side of history.”

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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