Very few prominent Iowa Republicans have endorsed same-sex marriage rights since the Iowa Supreme Court's 2009 decision striking down the state's Defense of Marriage Act. Every Republican now serving in the Iowa House and Senate is on record supporting a constitutional amendment to reverse that court ruling. When former State Senator Jeff Angelo created the Iowans for Freedom movement in 2011 to support marriage equality as consistent with conservative values, only a handful of Republicans signed on. One of them, Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, was later warned against seeking the GOP nomination for the special election in Senate district 18, in part because of his position on marriage.
Last night some heavy-hitter Republican strategists and activists met in Des Moines to urge the Iowa GOP to change its stance on marriage equality.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who worked on George W. Bush's first presidential campaign in Iowa, was the featured guest at yesterday's Iowans for Freedom event. As RNC chair, Mehlman collaborated on a strategy to place "one man, one woman" marriage initiatives on state ballots to improve GOP prospects. He came out as gay in 2010 and has been working ever since to reverse some of the damage he did to LGBT couples denied civil marriage rights. O.Kay Henderson covered the event and posted the audio at Radio Iowa. Mehlman's remarks run for about ten minutes.
"How can smaller and less intrusive government not include the right to choose the person that you would like to marry?" Mehlman said during brief remarks at the gathering. "...How does standing in the way of two adults who love each other not discourage rather than promote family values?"
Mehlman emphasized that civil marriage laws protect religious liberty and the right of religious organizations not to perform or recognize same-sex unions. He also talked about the hardships LGBT couples endure in states that don't grant legal status to their relationships. He said Iowa is "a better place today, a freer place, a juster place" because of civil marriage rights, and said opponents of equality can't provide a single example of how they have been harmed by other people's marriages.
David Kochel, who managed Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign in Iowa, helped organize Mehlman's Iowa visit. On January 27, he came out for marriage equality on WHO-TV's show "The Insiders." On that program, Kochel referred to a "demographic shift," including his own young adult children, who want to "move past" some of the social issues that have been a focus in Republican politics. Kochel asserted, "Frankly, the culture wars are kind of over. And the Republicans, largely, lost." He said that if Republicans are the party of "freedom and liberty," that should extend to personal freedom and the right to marry.
Kochel told last night's gathering that he usually stands in the back of the room at political events, but feels it's time to "step to the front of the room" on this issue. He said his children had called him to congratulate him after Sunday's WHO-TV program. For them and their generation, "it's a settled issue." Kochel said he had quietly felt this way for many years. While he understands that many Republicans will disagree with him on marriage, he urged them to recognize the need to "update our message," "reach out" and be more inclusive."
Henderson listed some of the other notables at last night's Iowans for Freedom Event. They included longtime RNC Committeeman Steve Roberts, Bob Dole's 1988 Iowa caucus campaign manager Tom Synhorst, Linn County GOP activist Kathy Potts, and (most surprising to me) Eric Woolson, who managed Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign in Iowa and the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of Bob Vander Plaats. No Iowan has been more relentlessly, some might say obsessively opposed to marriage equality than Vander Plaats. I am seeking comment from Woolson on whether he supports same-sex marriage rights or attended last night's event just to see Mehlman. (NOTE: see update below.) Stan Thompson, the GOP challenger to Representative Leonard Boswell in 2002 and 2004 was there as well.
Toward the end of the event, Angelo asked supporters to "like" the Iowa Republicans for Freedom Facebook page, while Kochel jokingly asked people to defend him on twitter @ddkochel. They deserve that support. It takes courage to step as far out of the Iowa Republican mainstream as they have done. The sooner marriage stops being a partisan issue, the better it will be for everyone.
UPDATE: Woolson confirmed that he came to see Mehlman, an old friend from the 1999 Bush campaign. He declined to give an opinion on the marriage issue, saying he has retired from politics and is working in the non-profit world.
Woolson mentioned that Eric Branstad, one of Governor Terry Branstad's sons, also attended the Iowans for Freedom event.