In Tampa, Pro-Gay Marriage Republicans Worry Their Party Is Out of Touch

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Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Sarah Longwell, a leader in a group of young Republicans who support same-sex marriage, holds up a copy of the Tampa Tribune on Wednesday, August 29, 2012.


When Sarah Longwell came to the podium in a downtown Tampa suite, she held up a full-page ad in Wednesday’s Tampa Tribune showcasing same-sex couples. It was a $20,000 rebuke of the Republican party paid for by Longwell’s group, Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, an organization of Republicans who support gay marriage despite their party’s staunch opposition to it. The day before, GOP officials in Tampa had approved a platform that supported states’ rights not to recognize same-sex marriage and a constitutional amendment to define the institution as a union between one man and one woman. Longwell was incensed.

“The institution of marriage is the foundation of civil society,” the ad reads, quoting a line from the platform. Then the ad says: “We agree.” Capitalizing on the conservative belief that marriage improves society, Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry is trying to change the Republican view of gay marriage from the inside. “If marriage is a stabilizing force, we should want more people to be married,” political pundit Margaret Hoover said at the Wednesday brunch, just a few blocks from the arena where Mitt Romney will accept the GOP nomination.

(PHOTOS: The RNC’s Kickoff in Pictures)

Pro-gay marriage Republicans emphasize the Party’s changing demographics. Polls suggest that young conservatives favor gay marriage at higher rates than their older compatriots. In a Pew Research Center survey that polled the millennial generation, 37% of respondents who said they were Republican or leaned Republican also said they supported the legalization of gay marriage. Just 20% of Republicans overall say the same thing. “You are going to lose people. You are going to lose relevance,” Longwell said of the GOP’s stance. “At some point, it’s going to look like you’re so out of touch that people will abandon you.”

Romney takes a more conservative stance on gay marriage today than he once did. Campaigning for the Massachusetts Senate in 1994, he wrote a letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, telling them that he supported “full equality” and open, “honest” military service. But in the run-up to his 2008 presidential campaign, Romney pressed Congress to ban same-sex marriage and opposed overturning “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”  His vice presidential pick, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, has shown some willingness to support gay rights–he voted for a bill that would prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. But opposing discrimination is long way from endorsing gay marriage, and groups like Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry are frustrated with the ticket they nonetheless support.

With no hope of altering the current platform, the group will concentrate on winning one Republican convert at a time, particularly legislators who can effect change at the state level. On Wednesday, those assembled were eager to celebrate the converts in their midst. One was Ted McCormac, a Tea Party Republican who was there to support his gay son, Tony, and Jeff Cook, his soon-to-be son-in-law. “I don’t think you realize how important issues are until you’re living them,” he says. “In fifty years, it’ll be much less of an issue than it is today.”