In May 2012, over 60% of North Carolina voters approved an amendment to their state constitution which defined marriage between a man and a woman as “the only domestic legal union” recognized in the state. It was one of over 25 ballot measures adopted by states between 1998 and 2015 that banned same-sex marriage. And one of its key backers was then-Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis.
A decade later, Tillis, now a U.S. Senator, said he would vote to codify the right to same-sex marriage into federal law in a vote expected to be held in the coming weeks.
Tillis’ switch is emblematic of a broader shift within the GOP—and the American public as a whole. A 2021 Gallup poll found that a record-breaking 70% of the U.S. population now supports same-sex marriage, including 83% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans. In 2013, just 53% of the U.S. public and 30% of Republicans supported the issue. Public sentiment has moved for a litany of reasons, experts say, including greater LGBTQ representation in media, more people coming out to their friends and family, and the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges that ruled there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
Obergefell seemed to settle the legal issue, but after the Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion this summer, LGBTQ advocates worry that undoing the right to same-sex marriage could be the next target of the conservative legal movement. Now, the Senate is poised to vote on legislation protecting same-sex marriage and interracial marriage, which could insulate those rights from reexamination by the Supreme Court.
Read More: Clarence Thomas Signals Same-Sex Marriage and Contraception Rights at Risk After Overturning Roe v. Wade
The Respect for Marriage Act, which would prevent state law from not recognizing marriages on the basis of “the sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin of those individuals,” passed the House 267-157 on July 19 with the support of 47 Republicans, including members of leadership. In the Senate, all 50 Democrats and four Republican Senators, including Tillis, Rob Portman of Ohio, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are expected to support the bill. It will need six more Republican votes to pass, and its fate marks a crucial inflection point for the GOP on the issue.
A Democratic Senate aide tells TIME that Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, who was the first openly queer politician elected to the Senate, is working with Collins to build more support among their GOP colleagues by “adding language that provides more clarity that the legislation would not take away any religious liberty or conscience protections.”
“It’s not just the GOP—the vast majority of Americans don’t want the government in their business. They don’t want the government to decide who they can and cannot marry who that special person is in their life,” says South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace, who voted in favor of the bill in the House. “This is 2022 and we need our party to have a larger tent. There are gay conservatives out there. And we just want to make sure they have a home.”
Some Republicans may now support same-sex marriage rights with the midterms in mind. The party in power usually loses seats in midterm elections. But the Supreme Court decision ending the federal right to an abortion has energized Democrats, putting more races in play and casting projections that Republicans would take back the House and Senate in doubt. Many of the 47 House Republicans who voted for the bill are in competitive races, says Gabriele Magni, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, and most primaries have passed. That means many GOP candidates are now more focused on wooing potential swing voters ahead of the general election than the far-right of their base. “A decent bloc of Republicans know that that they have so much going for them this year, when it comes to inflation, or the economy, or Joe Biden’s bad approval ratings,” says Miles Coleman, the associate editor of the election forecaster ‘Sabato’s Crystal Ball’ at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Why would they want to re-litigate an issue that they know most people already think of as settled?”
Still, less than 25% of House Republicans voted for the bill—a lower percentage than both Americans overall and Republican voters who say they support same-sex marriage. And not all wings of the party are ready to move on. “It seems as if conservatives have lost their courage on this issue,” says Kevin Roberts, president of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. “We have not given up on it, even though there has been this shift in the Republican Party.”
A dramatic change
On May 17, 2004, 78 same-sex couples were married at Cambridge City Hall in Massachusetts, becoming the first legally married same-sex partners in the United States. According to Gallup, 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage at the time, including both presidential candidates— Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry.
Over the next decade, acceptance of same-sex marriage increased dramatically in the U.S. public. Representation of queer couples grew in media. More people came out to their friends and family—meaning more people personally knew an openly LGBTQ person. Liberal states began codifying same-sex marriage into law, and more gay and lesbian couples gained access to the institution. “Our opponents had said, ‘The sky will fall. Marriage will be destroyed by letting same-sex couples marry.’ And none of that happened,” says David Stacy, the leader of the federal policy team at the LGBTQ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign. “People were like, ‘Oh, what were we afraid of?’”
In a sign of how much had changed for the issue politically, then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden came out in support of same-sex marriage rights during Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign—the first major party presidential ticket to ever do so. The following year, Ohio Senator Rob Portman became the first sitting GOP Senator to announced support for same-sex marriage legalization, sharing that his son was gay. And in 2015, the Supreme Court declared that the U.S. Constitution contained a right to marriage for same-sex couples, knocking down all remaining state bans.
Read More: Jim Obergefell Helped Secure the Right to Same-Sex Marriage. Now He’s Fighting to Keep It
Today, opposition to same-sex marriage has almost entirely disappeared from the Democratic Party and has shrunk within the GOP. Donald Trump ran for President in 2016 saying he was a “real friend” to the LGBT community, and according to network exit polls conducted by Edison Research, support for Trump among LGTBQ voters grew from 14% in 2016 to 27% in 2020.
“You’ve heard the messaging kind of adjust over the last couple of years with Republicans who don’t want to really address this,” says Charles T. Moran, president of the LGBT conservative group Log Cabin Republicans. “They’ll say something like, ‘I personally don’t support gay marriage, but it’s settled law, so we’re not going to address that.”
Moran says some GOP lawmakers told him they opposed the bill in the House not because they don’t support same-sex marriage, but because they don’t want to be seen endorsing an argument that Obergefell could be overturned. Moran says he responded that he needs to go to gay and lesbian voters in the fall and tell them that the Republican Party has their back, and if the GOP vote count for this bill is low, it makes that messaging substantially more difficult.
The midterms will likely also play a role in the Senate, where Republican lawmakers in tight races will need to evaluate how much a vote against same-sex marriage could hurt their chances. “Republicans are worried to some extent about giving Democrats another possible mobilizing issue following abortion,” says Magni. LGBTQ advocates are also lobbying for its passage, aware with that with the Equality Act—which would ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation—stalled in the Senate without GOP support, the Respect for Marriage Act could be the only LGBTQ rights legislation passed before the midterm elections.
But opposition to same-sex marriage endures on the right, and Republicans who vote for it may also risk alienating base voters or donors. Roberts of Heritage said in July that defeating the Respect for Marriage Act is one their political arm’s top five priorities, and says they’re lobbying against the bill and will keep track of how Republican Senators vote. In Heritage’s view, the language of the Respect for Marriage Act passed by the House would open the door for legalizing polygamy and violate religious freedom protections. “Since Obergefell, we’ve been looking for the opportunity to re-elevate this as a top of mind issue,” Roberts says, “especially for conservatives.”