Portman first GOP senator to back gay marriage

Party views on issue changing; 80 Republicans filed with Supreme Court to overturn DOMA.

Sen. Rob Portman’s decision to support same-sex marriage after one of his sons came out as gay caused a stir in the state and in the Senate, where he is believed to be the first Republican U.S. senator to openly support same-sex marriage.

But Portman is hardly alone in his party.

More than 80 Republicans recently filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting same-sex marriage.

And their shift may mirror public opinion on the issue. In 1996, Gallup conducted a poll finding 68 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage. When they asked the same question last May, 50 percent of Americans supported gay marriage, and 48 percent opposed it.

“I think we’re getting there as a party,” said former U.S. Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Columbus, who filed with the court to overturn the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which declared marriage as between a man and a woman. Pryce said her position on the issue evolved over a period of years. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve turned a corner as a party, but I think things are shifting.”

But the issue of whether same-sex partners have the right to wed — which may become a state ballot issue in November — is one that still splits Ohioans nearly a decade after the state passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in the state with 62 percent of the vote.

A December Quinnipiac University poll of Ohioans found 45 percent support same-sex marriage while 47 percent oppose it.

John Green of the University of Akron said polls on gay marriage have shifted over the years as more Americans begin to accept it.

“It’s been a slow, steady movement,” he said.

Other statewide elected GOP officeholders remained unmoved, and the Republican Party still opposes gay marriage in its party platform.

Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted called Portman “a good father and a thought leader” in the Republican Party, and said Portman “demonstrated both of those qualities with his actions.”

Husted, while declining to state his own position on gay marriage, said within the Republican Party are social conservatives and those who conscribe to a “freedom agenda” of limited government.

“What Rob has done will force that conversation within Republican circles to take a new sense of priority,” Husted said.

Spokesmen for Gov. John Kasich and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of West Chester Twp. both said the two men “respected” Portman’s position but did not share it.

Phil Burress of the socially conservative Citizens for Community Values called Portman’s decision “a personal matter,” and said he believes Portman’s son Will “pushed” the senator to endorse gay marriage. “It certainly violates the principles that he’s held since going to Congress in 1993,” Burress said, adding that he’s seen “thousands” of people “walk away from a sexuality that is not innate.”

Burress said that Portman — thought to be a possible Republican presidential contender in 2016 — will have to avoid the issue in order to have a political future.

“Any Republican who is on the wrong side of this issue is going to find themselves on the wrong side of the party,” Burress said.

Portman was considered to be on the short list for Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012. His staff said Thursday that Portman told Romney during the campaign that Will is gay.

Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who has known the Portman family for decades, on Friday said he also disagrees with Portman.

“I love Will and Rob and Jane and the entire family,” he said. “I disagree with the redefinition of marriage and will continue to advance my position on the political playing field.” Blackwell was the Republican nominee for Ohio governor in 2006.

Key Democrats were supportive of Portman’s decision. Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern applauded Portman on Twitter, saying Portman’s “voice should be joined by others in his party.”

Josh Earnest, a spokesman for President Obama, said Portman’s change is part of “a pretty significant sociological shift in this country that’s happening at a pretty rapid pace.”

Will Portman, who is on a kayaking and mountain biking trip with his father, was unavailable for comment Friday. But he posted a one-line reaction to his father’s news Thursday on Twitter: “Especially proud of my dad today,” he wrote.

Joe Vardon of The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.

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