The markers by which we measure political progress are many. But few are more consequential than the decisions made by politicians at election time. It is one thing for a sitting senator or candidate to vote the right way on a procedural question or to quietly issue a press release. It is something else altogether when an incumbent or challenger spends money to link a candidacy with what was until relatively recently considered to be a controversial stance.
So it is significant that Dr. Monica Wehby, a prominent Republican recruit for the US Senate race in Oregon, has produced a new television commercial that identifies her as an ally of advocates for marriage equality. In the ad, Ben West, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to this year’s court decision overturning Oregon’s bar on marriage equality, hails Wehby, saying, “I know she’ll fight for every Oregon family, including mine.”
Politico says, “No Republican Senate candidate has ever run an ad like this statewide.” LGBT groups have been quick to make note of the ad, as have conservative websites.
What’s important to understand is that what is happening with this ad may have more to do with national trends than with political realities on the ground in the reasonably “blue” state of Oregon—with the exception, of course, of the reality that Wehby is behind in the polls, is not getting the support she had hoped for from national conservative and Republican groups and is looking for a boost for her candidacy.
Wehby’s appeal won’t necessarily shift ardent backers of equal rights away from the Democrat she is challenging, Senator Jeff Merkley. Merkley has been a stalwart advocate for LGBT rights for many years. His history of support for marriage equality is long, and it is part of a broader progressive record that has put him well ahead in the polls. The Human Rights Campaign gave Merkley a strong endorsement earlier this year, with the HRC’s David Stacy saying, “The historic passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate last year could not have happened without his tireless work. From the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to marriage equality and other issues of fairness, Merkley is a true ally, and HRC is proud to stand with him.”
Additionally, though Wehby says, “I don’t have a problem with gay marriage,” she takes conservative stances on a host of other issues, and she would, if elected, vote to organize the Senate under Republican leadership that is known for its resistance to LGBT rights initiatives. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell describes himself as a “traditionalist” and objected noisily in February to a federal judge’s decision striking down Kentucky’s measures that discriminated against same-sex couples seeking to marry.
Don’t see the Wehby ad as a signal that the Republican Party is about to make the big turn on marriage equality, or LGBT issues in general. There are already Republican senators who have moved on the issue, and more will. The polling data tell us that when the generation that is coming of age now starts to vote in significant numbers, the GOP will have to change—not just in states such as Oregon but nationwide. But the Republican National Committee as recently as last year reaffirmed the party’s “support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
So how should we see the Wehby ad? As evidence that support for marriage equality is no longer so politically “bold” or “courageous” as it once was. In some states, it is necessary to making a mainstream appeal.
What the Wehby ad provides is additional and meaningful confirmation of the speed with which the marriage-equality debate is shifting—that a fundamental political change is coming more rapidly, perhaps, than even proponents of that change had imagined.
When Republican candidates start to embrace marriage equality as part of a broader appeal for the backing of swing voters, when they see the stance as essential to a broad appeal, that’s the measure of progress. Support for marriage equality is no longer a risk in much of America. It’s advantageous politically—so advantageous that a prominent Republican is making it part to her 2014 election-season appeal. This is a first, but it will not be a last.