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While No One Was Watching, Social Conservatives Just Lost Their Stranglehold on the GOP

Bill PuglianoGetty Images News/Getty Images

As Washington was comprehensively transfixed over the past couple weeks with the epic failure of the Obamacare launch, something very interesting was happening in the Senate. With little fuss or fanfare, social conservatives lost their once-iron grip on the modern Republican Party.

Up for consideration was legislation called ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. A high priority of the LGBT community for years, ENDA has the support of President Obama and the overwhelming majority of congressional Democrats.

But that and $4.50 will get you a breakfast panini and a medium coffee in the Senate, where 60 votes are necessary in the case of most legislation to end a filibuster and proceed to a floor vote. That means even with the unanimous support of Senate Democrats, which ENDA enjoys, you need seven Republicans to go along. And let’s just say that advancing the agenda of the Human Rights Campaign has not exactly been a priority for even a tiny minority of congressional Republicans, including the gay ones (and you know who you are).

And yet—the cloture motion passed with room to spare. Seven Republicans (Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Orrin Hatch, Dean Heller, Mark Kirk, Rob Portman, and Pat Toomey) joined 52 Democrats and the Senate’s two liberal independents to produce a 61-30 tally, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also in support of cloture but not voting. On final passage, the eight GOP senators were joined by two more, Jeff Flake and John McCain, yielding a convincing 64-32 result.

On the House side, Speaker John Boehner has said he sees “no basis or need” for the legislation. Most observers seem to be betting that he won’t bring it to the floor. Nevertheless, the political ramifications of what happened in the Senate are potentially far-reaching.

The “Defense of Marriage” era of the predominance of social conservatism in the GOP seems to be ending. To be sure, social conservatives still constitute a large majority within the party: Thirty-two Republican senators voted against ENDA as opposed to 10 in favor. But the minority GOP view for the first time has political salience: ENDA doesn’t pass the Senate without GOP support. Who knows how a House vote would come out, but if even one in eight GOP members there joined almost all Democrats, that would make a majority—subject, of course, to the House Speaker’s considerable though not comprehensive discretion in bringing legislation to the floor.

What does a GOP with a significant and politically consequential minority of LGBT-rights supporters look like? Well, a lot more in tune with national trends in public opinion, for one thing. Gallup took a survey just after the Senate vote showing that by 63–31 percent, Americans said they would vote for a law that would “make it illegal to discriminate in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” as ENDA does. Democrats approved by 65–32, but what may come as a surprise is that Republicans approved by 58–36. When Heritage Action designated a “no” on ENDA a “key vote,” it was vigorously representing the views of about a third of the 23 percent of Americans who call themselves Republicans these days.

The political variegation of the Senate GOP supporters of ENDA was also noteworthy. Collins and Murkowsky are, to be sure, GOP moderates, with Americans for Democratic Action1ratings of 50 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Heller (who is from Nevada) got a 20, as did Flake (in the House in 2012). But of the others, Ayotte, McCain, and Portman got 10 percent, and Hatch and Toomey 0 percent. (Kirk was recovering from a stroke and didn’t get an ADA rating for 2012, but is probably closer to Heller than to either Collins to the left or Toomey to the right.) So it’s not just a case of “moderate” Republicans breaking loose. Starting now, one can be pretty conservative while still opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Going forward, a GOP in which some oppose but a significant and growing number support LGBT rights is a party more attractive at the center than a GOP completely in the thrall of social conservatism. Once again, a divided party may be an emerging asset of the GOP.

But is it a stable formula for a coalition? Well, the New Deal Democratic coalition simultaneously included segregationist southerners and northern urban blacks. It’s not that the two latter groups got along very well. You could say that the long-run compatibility was dubious, as the South moved into the GOP column. But out-and-out segregationist sentiment, to the extent it is still out there, dares not speak its name any more, including in the GOP. If only about a third of self-identified Republicans now oppose LGBT rights, it seems far more likely that that position will continue to lose support among GOP politicians, including conservative politicians, than that LGBT-rights supporters will decide they need to bolt the GOP.