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GOP profiles in courage: Why Senator Murkowski matters

Once considered shocking, elected officials’ declarations of support for the freedom to marry have become less and less surprising to Americans.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Once considered shocking, elected officials’ declarations of support for the freedom to marry have become less and less surprising to Americans. Reminded of their own evolution toward greater acceptance and understanding of their gay and lesbian friends and neighbors, citizens identify with the deeply personal conclusions their legislators are reaching.  They “get” that it is a very personal journey.

But every once in a while these developments are seen as real news, as we saw this week with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s historic announcement that she too supports the freedom to marry.  Murkowski’s decision made her the third Republican Senator to embrace the principle that “freedom means freedom for everyone,” joining 226 other Republican legislators across the country who have taken a stand on the right side of history. Making her statement just days before two widely anticipated Supreme Court decisions on marriage, Murkowski compellingly articulated the conservative case for marriage equality:  defending the pursuit of happiness from inappropriate government interference while respecting the critical importance of religious freedom.

Now that 12 states have enacted the freedom to marry, it has become increasingly clear why these principled stands by Republicans matter so much to the trajectory of the marriage issue. In state after state and in our nation’s capital, too, courageous leaders like Lisa Murkowski are altering conventional wisdom and having a transformative impact on peers who continue to struggle with the issue.

Related: Murkowski third Republican senator to endorse marriage equality 

When conservative Ohio Senator Rob Portman announced his support for marriage in March, pundits focused on how the experience of having a gay family member influences one’s perspective on the ways that government and society treat their loved ones. But there’s an even more interesting part of the story–the multiplying effect a single statement of support from a leading Republican can have on other elected officials. This “Portman effect” caused not only Republican Senators to rethink the issue, but it changed the calculus for wavering Democrats.

Portman’s decision put Democrats on the spot, forcing them to take a position on an issue they’d rather avoid.  It also moved the goalposts, making support for same-sex marriage necessary for Democrats who do not want to be seen as “to the right” of a reliably conservative GOP senator. In the days that followed, the dynamic shifted dramatically as Democratic senators and Hillary Clinton all came around on the issue, prompting Chief Justice John Roberts to suggest legislators were “falling all over themselves.”

We’ve seen this happen at the state level as well.  Despite overwhelming Democratic majorities, Rhode Island remained the last holdout in New England on marriage until earlier this year. Facing opposition from Senate Democratic leaders, advocates struggled to demonstrate majority support in the chamber until the Senate Republican Conference made history, becoming the nation’s first legislative caucus of either party to unanimously support freedom-to-marry legislation. In Minnesota, the phenomenon was on full display again, as House Republican lawmakers broke the logjam by amending the marriage bill to clearly distinguish between civil and religious marriage, creating the political cover that rural Democrats needed to get on board. Courage apparently is contagious.

Related: A year after Obama's gay marriage evolution

Another consequence of the prospect of winning Republican allies is that it has changed the way the equal rights movement does business. Advocates have done a tremendous job in recent years demonstrating growing support within the GOP, highlighting the support of nine former governors, leading officials in the George W. Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney, former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, the party’s top donors and a majority of rank-and-file Republicans aged 50 and under. Whether through Freedom to Marry’s efforts to mobilize young conservatives, Project Right Side’s well-respected public opinion research or American Unity Fund’s engagement of Republican legislators, pro-freedom Republicans are contributing to the cause at a level never seen before, changing the equation on the center-right. The authentically bipartisan strategy that the movement has adopted is precisely the reason that the recent remarkable progress became possible.

Sometimes it simply takes a Richard Nixon to go to China, a Bill Clinton to sign welfare reform or a few courageous Republican Senators to convince the cautious that gay and lesbian Americans deserve equal respect and dignity under the law. Historic moments matter, changing the context of debate, altering political realities on both sides of the aisle and affirming the inherent dignity and worth of each individual.  That’s why we’re all paying attention, and that’s why gay and lesbian Americans and those who care about them are so grateful for the Rob Portmans, Mark Kirks and Lisa Murkowskis of the world. There’s reason to expect many more Republican profiles in courage in the months to come.