Senator Rob Portman is being touted as a potential presidential candidate by Speaker John Boehner, and the Ohio Republican is making a campaign appearance in Iowa this week. But that isn’t stopping a major conservative organization from recruiting candidates to run against him in his 2016 Senate primary.
Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, a prominent social conservative group, told The Daily Beast that his group would be working “day in and day out to have a candidate to defeat Portman.” Brown said that the group had identified “several folks who could potentially” win a Republican Senate primary against Portman in 2016 and was actively recruiting them to run.
Portman received national attention in 2013 when he emotionally came out in support of gay marriage. The Ohio senator’s decision was spurred by his son, Will, coming out as gay in 2011. His switch on the issue angered many on the right, particularly among groups like NOM, which is dedicated to fighting the legalization of gay marriage.
Brown has also been encouraging his fellow Republicans not to vote for three GOP candidates in competitive races in 2014 who all support gay marriage. His group is urging conservatives not to support two openly gay Republican candidates for Congress, Richard Tisei in Massachusetts and Carl DeMaio in California, and also Monica Wehby, the pro-marriage equality GOP senate nominee in Oregon.
Brown went so far as to say that a victory for DeMaio’s opponent, first-term Democratic representative Scott Peters “is a victory for us, even though obviously I think Peters is just as bad, as a Democrat.”
The social conservative sneered that “we’re not playing the game any more … just suck it up and vote for a Republican even though they are totally going to undermine everything that the Republican Party stands for.” Brown also touted his group’s success in a New York congressional primary where a candidate backed by social conservatives narrowly lost to Richard Hanna, an established two-term incumbent, after being outspent by a 10-to-1 margin.
But even if NOM is successful in recruiting a social conservative candidate to run against Portman, it doesn’t necessarily mean their efforts will be successful.
Gregory Angelo of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that advocates for LGBT rights with the GOP, scoffed that the National Organization for Marriage’s “bark is worse than their bite.” In his experience, social conservative primary challengers rarely materialize against pro-gay marriage Republicans, and he didn’t think voters were going to take NOM’s efforts seriously in November.
But NOM’s efforts shouldn’t just be seen through a purely electoral perspective. With the potential for a Supreme Court decision on marriage in the next year, the group is preparing for the possibility of fighting against gay marriage in a country where same-sex unions are legal in all 50 states. That means the fight for traditional marriage could quickly transition into a battlefield more like that over abortion in the post-Roe v. Wade era, with a struggle for incremental gains over wedge issues.
The goal, then, isn’t just about beating pro-marriage equality Republicans—it’s about changing the political calculus around the fight and trying to keep the issue a fiercely partisan one. This is a process that has already happened with abortion, an issue where the divides once had little to do with party lines (in the 1970s, Teddy Kennedy was pro-life and George W. Bush was pro-choice).
Marriage equality is now part of the Democratic Party platform and it’s rare to find an elected Democrat, even from a red state, who doesn’t support same-sex marriage. The question is whether Brown’s efforts to purge the Republican Party of supporters of marriage equality will keep the GOP from eventually following suit.