Republican officials in Illinois who supported marriage equality won their primaries across the board this week — a development that LGBT rights supporters say demonstrates growing support for marriage equality even within the Republican Party.
Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to the pro-LGBT American Unity Fund, counted four victories on Tuesday night among Republicans who supported marriage equality and said they represent a “turning point” for the party.
“These victories in Illinois demonstrate that we really are reaching a turning point, not only on the issue nationally, but we’re reaching a turning point within the Republican Party,” Cook-McCormac said. “It’s becoming safer and safer for Republican elected officials to follow their conscience, do the right thing and advance the freedom to marry.”
Each of the three Republicans who voted for marriage equality when it came before the Illinois State House in November — State Reps. Tom Cross, Ed Sullivan and Ron Sandack — faced primary challengers, but came out on top to keep their party’s nomination going into the general election.
Cross and Sullivan beat their competitors by double-digit points in the primary. Sandack scored a narrower win, defeating his opponent by 153 votes.
Additionally, Illinois State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who voiced support for marriage equality, didn’t face a primary challenge. She spoke at rallies in favor of marriage equality, including the ceremony in which Gov. Pat Quinn signed the marriage legislation into law.
Pat Brady, former head of the Illinois Republican Party who helped lobby for the marriage equality legislation for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the result “puts the issue to rest” over whether Republicans can be politically viable if they support same-sex marriage.
“The people that so loudly proclaimed that they were going to take out anybody in the Republican primary — or Democratic primary, for that matter — that voted for marriage equality turned out to be just what I thought they’d be: a bunch of paper tigers,” Brady said.
Brady, who resigned his position as party chair shortly after he announced his personal support for marriage equality, said the election results demonstrate a shift in the “political reality” of the Republican Party.
“It is a shift,” Brady said. “You can be pro-marriage equality, still be a good Republican and still win. And in a state like Illinois, to win the general election, I think it helps candidates.”
The results of the primary reflect the growing support for marriage equality nationwide — even within the Republican Party. A Washington Post/ABC News poll published earlier this month found record support for same-sex marriage and 40 percent of Republicans favor gay nuptials.
Support is particularly strong among young Republicans. A Pew Research Center poll published March 10 found 61 percent of Republicans under age 30 support same-sex marriage.
But one anti-gay group that worked to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois is disputing the notion the wins for Republican who voted for it represents change.
David Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, said the results are “absolutely not” a shift and instead the result of Republicans enlisting the help of Democrats to win primaries.
“It’s a very well-established fact that a lot of Democrats crossed over to vote in the Republican primary because there wasn’t a significant race for governor and for Senate on the Democratic ballot,” Smith said. “There was a quite a lot of union-plus-Democrat crossover.”
Smith also denied that wins for Republicans who voted for same-sex marriage had any wider implication of growing support for same-sex marriage within the GOP.
“I would point to the fact that the two social conservatives running for governor in a Republican primary got 59 percent of the vote together, allowing a more moderate Republican to win,” Smith said. “Obviously, social issues do matter to the majority — 60 percent or more — of Republican voters.”
But Cook-McCormac pushed back against the assertion that wins for Republicans who voted for marriage equality has no meaning, saying anti-gay groups are “running out of excuses.”
“They can create whatever excuses and draw whatever explanations that they like,” Cook-McCormac said. “The bottom line is they were out campaigned, out worked and they were out-appealed-to. Americans, and Republican voters in particular, are done with the anti-gay politics of the past and they’re ready to move forward based on the issues that unite all of us.”
The two sides nonetheless agree that marriage equality was the major issue for why these Republicans faced primary challenges. For Sandack, the candidate who came the closest to losing, anti-gay groups circulated a flier and aired TV ads displaying two men kissing (much to the consternation of Windy City Times, which has accused the groups of unlawfully stealing a photo of Sandack taken by the gay newspaper for the material).
The wins arguably represent a change from what happened with Republicans in New York who voted to legalize same-sex marriage in 2011. According to The New York Times, one faced a difficult re-election and decided not to run again, another was defeated in a primary, and the other was defeated by a Democrat in the general election because a conservative in the race drew away votes.
“It’s demonstrated that our side has got a lot better at defending our kind,” Cook-McCormac said. “As we’ve seen in Illinois, there are very smart, sophisticated strategies being put in place independently in addition to bundling direct contributions to candidates that are helping to ensure that these legislators who show courage are well-positioned to win re-election.”
The pro-gay Illinois Unity PAC raised $155,000 to assist with independent expenditure efforts on behalf of Ed Sullivan and Ron Sandack, which primarily focused on public opinion research, multiple rounds of direct mail, live operator ID and get-out-the-vote calls, a source familiar with the PAC said. On the other side, the main anti-gay independent expenditure committee, Liberty Principles PAC, spent about $220,000 just attacking Sandack, the source said.
But the wins for pro-gay Republican weren’t across the board. In a bid for the Republican nomination to represent the state’s 9th congressional district in the U.S. House, Susanne Atanus, who has blamed tornadoes and autism on gay rights and abortion, beat out her more moderate competitor, David Earl Williams III, even though the state party called on her to drop out of the race.
“God is angry. We are provoking him with abortions and same-sex marriage and civil unions,” she said during a debate. “Same-sex activity is going to increase AIDS. If it’s in our military it will weaken our military. We need to respect God.”
Cook-McCormac downplayed the significance of Atanus’ win, saying she has “zero chance” in her bid against Rep. Jan Schakowsky in the heavily Democratic district.
“It’s always embarrassing whether it’s Democrats putting up far-left candidates or Republicans putting up far-right to see those people on the ballot,” Cook-McCormac said. “But I hardly believe a candidate like that is really representative of where Republicans are.”
Wins for Illinois Republicans who supported same-sex marriage raises the question of viability in the other two states that legalized same-sex marriage through the legislative process in 2013: Minnesota and Hawaii. Both of the primaries in those states will take place in August.
State Rep. Cynthia Thielen in Hawaii is facing the threat of a primary challenger on Aug. 9, while State Rep. Jenifer Loon in Minnesota is facing the threat of a primary challenger on Aug. 12. The challengers to these lawmakers, who have no political experience, are running single-issue campaigns against the marriage equality votes.
Cook-McCormac spoke generally about the progress made on LGBT issues in the GOP when asked whether the Illinois primary results will predict the outcome of Republican primaries in Hawaii and Minnesota.
“I think that what you’re going to see is that other Republican candidates across the country who are being challenged by an increasingly small group of opponents on this issue, they’re going to have the resources they need to win, as well as the broad-based political support of Republicans who may have a diversity of opinions on the marriage issue, but who recognize that these public servants’ focus on lower taxes, smaller government, and creating more jobs is why they chose them to represent them in the first place,” Cook-McCormac said.