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Capitol Fax - Rich Miller

GOP tries to avoid backlash on gay marriage

Elected officials drastically retool public messages

Elected officials drastically retool public messages

You can always tell when somebody is losing an argument because they are constantly backtracking and recalibrating.

And it’s no different with gay marriage.

Back in January, for instance, newly elected state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, freely admitted that gay marriage was at the heart of his desire to oust state GOP Chairman Pat Brady, who had recently announced his support for a Senate bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

“I believe we have to have a meeting to ask Pat for an explanation, to modify his actions or get a new CEO,” Oberweis told the Kane County Chronicle back then. “Our CEO has taken very open, public action contrary to the organization, and that’s unacceptable.”

Immediately, however, more moderate GOP leaders pushed back hard against Oberweis, saying that ousting the party’s chairman over gay marriage would send absolutely the wrong message to the voting public, which was coming around fast to supporting the issue.

Young people, in particular, counted themselves as strong supporters of the concept, so the old ways of staunchly advocating outdated policies would continue to stunt the party’s potential growth.

Oberweis didn’t give up his challenge to Brady. Far from it. Indeed, he apparently came within a weighted percentage point of the required 60 percent vote to oust Brady during a planned emergency state party meeting last month.

The meeting was canceled when some central committeemen decided to heed the commands of party leaders like U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and House GOP Leader Tom Cross and backed off.

But while Oberweis didn’t drop his attempt to force Brady out, he did change his tune on the reasons.

A month after saying it was all about gay marriage, Oberweis told Chicago Public Radio, “It has nothing to do with gay marriage.”

That even a guy like Oberweis felt the need to drastically retool his public message shows how far this issue has come and how even some on the hard social right now understand that they have to walk a whole lot more softly or risk a voter backlash.

Since then, party leaders who want Brady ousted have kept a lid on their conservative colleagues’ inflammatory rhetoric and tried hard to focus their ire on Brady’s performance during last year’s election campaign. Those objections ring hollow, however, because none of the state central committeemen uttered so much as a peep about Brady’s tenure during a post-election state party meeting last December.

This putsch is all about gay marriage, but the coup plotters at least have the sense to try to couch their terms in a more acceptable manner, which means that even they know they’ve lost the public debate.

State Sen. Bill Brady, a conservative Catholic Republican who has long opposed gay marriage, has not taken a public position on Chairman Brady’s tenure. Sen. Kirk Dillard, who has moved even further to the right since losing the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nomination to Bill Brady, is, like his former opponent, staunchly opposed to gay marriage. But, like Sen. Brady, Dillard has also refused to take a position on Chairman Brady’s support for the issue, leaving it up to the state central committee to decide whether he should remain as the party’s leader.

None of this is meant to suggest that state Sens. Oberweis, Brady and Dillard are about to switch sides and support gay marriage, like U.S. Sen. Kirk eventually did last week. But it does suggest that even these hardened conservatives understand that they have all but lost the public debate on this particular issue and must tiptoe around it for fear of damaging their own political party.

Two years ago, it would have been considered impossible that a state GOP chairman here would so publicly support gay marriage. That, in and of itself, shows how far and how quickly the issue has progressed.

But Chairman Brady has always been a part of the party’s more moderate wing. I think what’s more important here is how even some of the state’s top socially conservative legislators have moderated their public messaging.

They may not admit it, even to themselves, but their actions speak pretty loudly that they’ve lost this particular debate.

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