The public spat within the Cheney family over the issue of same-sex marriage has prompted many to suggest the flap is a microcosm of what’s happening in the Republican Party at large over LGBT rights.
An explosion of media coverage ensued this week over lesbian Mary Cheney taking to her Facebook page to publicly rebuke her sister, U.S. Senate candidate Liz Cheney, for stating her opposition to marriage equality on Fox News Sunday. “Liz – this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree – you’re just wrong – and on the wrong side of history,” Mary Cheney wrote.
In a statement provided to media outlets, former Vice President Richard Cheney, a supporter of same-sex marriage, along with his wife Lynne Cheney, articulated a sense of pain over the controversy.
“This is an issue we have dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public,” Dick and Lynne Cheney said in the joint statement. “Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage. She has also always treated her sister and her sister’s family with love and respect.”
Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the Cheney dispute demonstrates Republicans “do not walk in lockstep” on the issue of marriage equality.
“I think it shows there’s a lot more discussion that needs to happen both within the Republican Party and at dinner tables around the country in order to get more Republicans on the right side of this issue,” Angelo said.
Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based advocate and Democratic activist, also said the Cheney family conflict reflects the division among Republicans on the marriage issue.
“It’s uncanny how it exactly mirrors the divisions within the larger Republican Party,” Socarides said. “Cross generational agreement exists but there are still some geographic and ideological differences. It shows also that the GOP still has a long, long way to go and that most LGBTs are going to be more at home with the Democrats.”
The growing support for marriage equality among the GOP can be seen by three GOP senators coming out for marriage equality this year: Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
And support for same-sex marriage is growing among younger Republicans, although the party as a whole remains opposed to gay nuptials. According to a March 2013 analysis by Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen and Democratic pollster Joel Benenson, a bare majority of 51 percent of Republicans under the age of 30 support the legalization of same-sex marriage in their state.
But the party’s official position on marriage equality is still opposed. In April, the Republican National Committee approved by voice-vote a package of resolutions that included a measure reaffirming the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
Liz Mair, a Republican political strategist who favors LGBT inclusion in the GOP, said Liz Cheney’s advisers are mistaken if they’re telling their candidate that opposing same-sex marriage will make her more favorable to Republican voters because that strategy hasn’t worked for other GOP candidates.
“They tend to want to adopt or play up very conservative stances on issues that aren’t top-five or even top-10 for many primary voters at all, and think that will give them a toehold from which they can claw their way into contention,” Mair said. “It rarely works, and we’ve seen this whether we’re talking about hardline rhetoric on immigration or tacking right, noticeably, on so-called ‘gay issues.'”
Liz Cheney may have wanted to use the marriage issue to gain traction against her opponent, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). At the end of October, Enzi was ahead of Cheney 69 percent to 17 percent in a survey among likely primary voters conducted by Bob Wickers of The Wickers Group.
Mair said the more interesting question is whether Enzi, the incumbent, would be able to survive a primary challenge if he supported same-sex marriage.
“We’re not going to get to give that theory a test run, because Enzi does not support same-sex marriage, but the fact that it seems possible suggests what all the polling suggests,” Mair said. “This is an issue that is waning in importance for GOP primary voters and to the extent that it remains important, it’s because the number of self-identified Republicans who support the freedom to marry is increasing steadily, noticeably and consistently.”
The rebuke from Mary Cheney, who married her partner Heather Poe last year in D.C., also represents an evolution on her part after enduring criticism for not taking a strong enough position in urging her party to support same-sex marriage.
Mary Cheney in 2002 joined the advisory board for the now-defunct Republican Unity Coalition, a gay/straight alliance dedicated to making sexual orientation a ‘non-issue’ for the GOP.
But Mary Cheney didn’t stay with the organization. In 2003, the group criticized then-Sen. Rick Santorum for his now infamous comments comparing homosexuality to bigamy, incest and adultery when discussing sodomy laws.
During a 2003 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Republican strategist and Cheney adviser Mary Matalin in turn rebuked the RUC for going after Santorum, saying the organization was “parroting” the Democratic interpretation of what Santorum said. About a week later, Mary Cheney resigned from the RUC, deferring media inquires to Matalin.
Even as Mary Cheney has criticized her sister for opposing same-sex marriage, she recently contributed $2,500 to the Romney presidential campaign despite his support for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In 2004, John Aravosis, a gay political activist, started a campaign called “Dear Mary” to encourage Mary Cheney to speak out against a Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as she helped her father with the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.
Aravosis, now editor of AMERICAblog, said he thinks Mary Cheney’s criticism of her sister is real and welcome, but still somewhat conflicted.
“Mary is running into a basic contradiction that gay Republicans face: Anti-gay bigots often don’t discriminate against us privately, but when in the public policy sphere they’re more than happy to,” Aravosis said. “Mary is finally coming to terms with that fact, and that’s great. But she needs to stop supporting anti-gay candidates overall, then I think people will accept her support unquestioningly.”
The situation also brings into question how the marriage issue will play out once the presidential primaries begin in 2016. What will be the fallout for potential candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who opposes same-sex marriage, but withdrew an appeal before the Supreme Court on a court ruling in favor of marriage equality?
Mair said she doesn’t think Christie’s chances of securing the Republican presidential nomination are at all diminished by his decision to back down in the marriage equality fight.
“With some pockets of the GOP primary electorate, especially in a state like New Hampshire, they may be increased,” Mair said. “But like Liz Cheney and Mike Enzi, I would be highly surprised if Christie’s prospects in a primary hinged on his stance on same-sex marriage.”
Bigger issues, Mair said, would be his brashness, his stance on issues like guns and foreign policy, and whether he could hold his own against Hillary Clinton in the general election.
Angelo noted that Christie hasn’t made any personal statements regarding his feelings on marriage equality following his decision to withdraw the appeal to speak to whether they’ve changed.
“If anything, Chris Christie certainly has a strong independent streak and has not allowed himself to be defined by any one single issue for the entirety of his term of governor of New Jersey,” Angelo said. “I imagine that will likely be the case with the civil marriage issue as well.”