When the Conservative Political Action Conference launches on February 10, the mood will be uncharacteristically flamboyant. Not only because the gay caucus GOProud will be prominently participating, but because the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, the Family Research Council, and other “values” organizations won’t be. Together, they’ve mounted a CPAC boycott, an effort to strip the newish homosexual element from the conservative coalition and part of a larger bid to forcibly remarry social and fiscal conservatives. The bet was that distaste for gay people themselves—as opposed to lightning rods like gay marriage or adoption, which aren’t included in GOProud’s platform—is still a strong right-wing motivator. It’s a bet they seem to have lost.
The split between the fiscal and social right is on the minds of Republicans as they gear up for the 2012 presidential campaign. But if the party Establishment is nervous about its fractured coalition, social conservatives are shaking in their bucks. The tea party is now the most electorally potent portion of the GOP base: Exit polls indicated that 41 percent of voters in the midterm House races supported the movement, and 87 percent of those people voted Republican. At the same time, only 50 percent of tea partyers self-identify as socially conservative. That’s got to worry anti-gay groups, who suffered significant losses in 2010, culminating in the bi-partisan repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
If groups like NOM are to have their agenda influence the coming presidential election, they’ll need candidates to think tea partyers care about their issues. This is why they drew a line in the sand at CPAC—a line that potential GOP presidential candidates like Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and front-runner-for-now Mitt Romney promptly crossed. So far, the only leading Republican to join the boycott is South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. (Marco Rubio and Sarah Palin are skipping for what they say are unrelated reasons.) DeMint’s the guy who once said gay people shouldn’t be teachers. He’s also said that a person “can’t be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative.” Half the tea party would disagree.
A general fear of gay people—that they are out to change the American way of life—was a force in the 2004 and 2006 elections, thanks to Karl Rove, who worked with the GOP to put gay referenda on local ballots as a way to boost right-wing turnout. In 2008, gay-marriage bans again appeared on state ballots. In tea-party 2010, the Republicans didn’t need to try the move again. Now, with the fizzling of the CPAC boycott, it seems this brand of fear-mongering has lost its usefulness. Even “family values” champion Rick Santorum will speak at CPAC, willing to let the issue slide in the interest of wooing a larger voting bloc.
In perhaps the most telling indication that the tactics of the anti-gay right have failed, conservative-website mogul Andrew Breitbart recently joined GOProud’s advisory council. He’s also announced that he’ll host a dance party for gay CPAC attendees that he’s dubbed the “Roy Cohn CPAC Breitbart Homocon Welcoming Eighties Extravaganza.” Breitbart says he fears the LGBT-activist left “more than Al Qaeda,” because he so disagrees with their agenda. But surely to the disappointment of some on his side, he’s not afraid of gay people themselves.