Wearing a Cincinnati Reds jacket on opening day, Ohio Senator Rob Portman is on the baseball field talking up his home team’s prospects.
Outside the stadium, his constituents are buzzing about something entirely different: Portman’s decision to change his position and favor gay marriage.
“It’s not a career ender as far as we’re concerned but there’s gonna be a lot of folks who take that as one,” said Mike Jacobs, a self-employed investment adviser and Portman supporter. His wife, Pam, agreed: “A lot of people, especially in this area, are not for gay marriage,” she added.
Urgent: Should Gay Marriage Be Legal? Vote Here in Urgent National Poll.
A number of senators have announced they support same-sex marriage over the past few weeks. Just one is a Republican from a competitive presidential state, and that’s Portman. Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who this week said he’s changed position to support the issue, hails from Illinois -- a state that hasn’t backed a Republican White House nominee since 1988.
With his March 15 announcement, Portman, 57, transformed himself from a Republican standard-bearer who was a contender to become 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate into the primary test case on an issue that has seen a rapid shift in public acceptance.
“He’s a very credible person in Ohio politics much more so than many other senators in their respective states,” said Republican strategist Mark Weaver. “If he can’t weather this, there’s no way a lesser-known politician could.”
Support for same-sex marriage has reached an all-time high, with 58 percent of Americans saying it should be legal, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey taken March 7-10. At the same time, only 34 percent of Republicans approved of it and 59 percent disapproved, the poll found, shedding light on the political risk Portman took in changing his mind.
Legalizing gay marriage is supported by 70 percent of younger voters, those between the ages of 18 and 39, a growing voting bloc that voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in last year’s election. The Republican National Committee has identified the need to attract young voters as one of the top priorities for the party to become more competitive in national and state races.
Portman revealed his change of heart in an orchestrated roll-out that included advance briefings for anti-tax Tea Party activists and other politically influential groups in the state. In those sessions and public remarks, he stressed that this was a personal decision, driven by soul-searching that began two years ago when he learned that his son, Will, is gay.
“Ultimately, for me, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Columbus Dispatch.
Since the publication of his new view, he’s tried to pivot back to politics-as-usual. Home for the congressional recess this week, he waved to crowds gathered to see the Reds season opener and participated in a pre-game ceremony for wounded veterans. Later in the week, he toured a Cleveland hospital, met with business leaders, and held closed-door fundraisers in Cleveland and Columbus.
A former U.S. trade representative and White House budget director, he is emphasizing the issues he’s driven throughout his career: debt, the economy and jobs.
“He’s known for being focused on economic issues and fiscal issues,” said Curt Steiner, a Columbus-based strategist who ran Portman’s first House campaign in 1993. “He has not made a big deal over the years about social issues.”
Yet, same-sex marriage is still dominating conversations with voters, activists, and the media in his home state.
“The firestorm continues,” he said in an interview with local radio hosts in Cleveland on April 2. “I got a lot of comments, as you can imagine.”
A major reason for that is because he was the first Republican in the Senate to change his position. Of the still- serving Democrats who supported the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, at least 27 have changed their position. Only two Republicans -- Portman and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Florida -- made the same switch.
There are other signs of change in Republican ranks. A slim majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents younger than 50 years now support gay marriage. In February, former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman collected more than 130 signatures from top party officials in favor of a lawsuit seeking to overturn California’s gay-marriage ban -- a case that was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 27.
Potential Republican presidential candidates have been trying to straddle the divide within the party, by expressing their own belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman while advocating for leaving the political decisions to the states.
“ I don’t think the federal government should tell anybody or any state government how they should decide this,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul in a March 24 interview with “Fox News Sunday.”
Nowhere are the changing attitudes toward the issue more evident than in the area around Portman’s home town of Cincinnati.
In 1990, the Contemporary Art Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, were indicted for displaying obscenity on the opening day of a Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit. The charges were tied to seven portraits of mostly sadomasochistic acts. A jury ruled for the museum. Until 2004, the city had an anti-gay rights law on its books.
Hamilton County, which prosecuted the art center case, voted reliably Republican before backing Obama in 2008 and 2012. The county favored the Democratic nominee only four other times this century: in 1964, 1936, 1932 and 1912, according to election statistics compiled by Columbus political consultant Mike Dawson.
Now the city boasts a lively gay scene and an openly gay council member. After organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade banned a group that works to protect gay students from bullies, five city council members, several local candidates, and unions withdrew from the event in protest.
“I haven’t resolved all the issues in my mind quite yet,” Jeff Ryan, 62, a farmer from Highland, Ohio. “But I’m a conservative, I’m a Republican and I’m a supporter of Senator Portman. He was right to change.”
Not everyone is content. Two days before Portman’s appearance in Butler County, a group of more than 80 Tea Party activists and evangelical Christian Republicans issued a letter saying they would no longer back Portman and would “instead support those who are true to our cause.”
Last month, Phil Burress, who spearheaded a successful 2004 effort to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, asked his supporters to write Portman’s office; almost 4,000 sent opposition e-mails, he said.
“Things have not changed that dramatically,” he said in an interview. “He will not be re-elected.”
Portman’s shift also unnerved some supporters of same-sex marriage.
“I have no problems with gay marriage, but somebody who was so hard-core, you have to wonder why he changed his views,” said Portman supporter Jim Richardson, 36, a database administrator from the Cincinnati suburbs. “It’s like was it for his son or political gain.”
When the senator delivered the keynote address at the March 23 Lincoln Day Dinner for the Republican Party in Butler County, an area that’s home to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, aides prepared for the worst.
They were pleasantly surprised when he received standing ovations before and after his speech, which didn’t include a mention of his change of position nine days earlier.
“For some people, it may be their top issue,” Portman told reporters, saying the donors he met at $500 per-person reception beforehand were split about his shift of stance. “But the truth is for most Republicans, the top issue is the economy, jobs, the overspending in Washington.”
© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.