Huntsman’s gay-rights shakeup

An email from a consultant to the newest GOP contender casts Jon Huntsman as gay Republicans’ best bet in 2012—but though the former governor supports civil unions, he still needs to clarify his position on the issue.

By Eve Conant

June 21, 2011 10:30 PM EDT

Jon Huntsman didn’t waste much time in drawing a sharp distinction between himself and many in the 2012 field—thanks to a fundraising appeal to a nontraditional constituency in the GOP primaries.

On the eve of Huntsman’s official campaign launch Tuesday, one of his political consultants, Charles Moran, issued a straight-out-of-the-gate email casting the former Utah governor as a friend of the gay, lesbian, and transgender community.

“On the domestic front, and as it specifically pertains to our greater LGBT community, Governor and Mrs. Huntsman are particularly supportive of our issues,” wrote Moran, a consultant who also is involved with the GOP gay-rights group known as the Log Cabin Republicans.

Moran wrote that Huntsman supported legislation that established civil unions for gays in Utah in 2009 and also set up regular meetings with the Log Cabin Republicans as governor.

“He’s talked the talk, and walked the walk—Governor Huntsman is not only the right choice to lead our nation, he is unique in his desire to have a fully inclusive campaign,” Moran wrote, adding that he is joining the Huntsman campaign in an official capacity.

“If you want to vote for a Republican, Huntsman is probably your best option,” said Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Moran confirmed that he is working as a political consultant for the Huntsman campaign and did not send the letter in connection with his affiliation with the gay-rights group. He said he was excited about Huntsman and his vision for America.

Huntsman’s campaign declined to address Moran.

Asked about Huntsman’s commitment to gay rights, Tim Miller, a spokesman for the former governor, told The Daily Beast, “Governor Huntsman has long been supportive of civil unions. His position on that issue is the same as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.”

In 2004 Bush said the GOP was wrong to oppose same-sex civil unions and that it was up the states to decide how best to move forward. But he didn’t push for gay rights, as Huntsman eventually did.

In 2004 Huntsman supported Utah’s constitutional amendment outlawing marriage for gays and lesbians, but then later strongly supported a 2009 initiative to allow civil unions, despite significant conservative opposition.

While conservative and Republican positions on gay rights have shifted toward greater acceptance, especially of civil unions, which Huntsman supports, he’ll likely need to define his positions in clear detail, and quickly.

Even gay advocates, liberal and conservative, were surprised by the letter—sent to supporters the night before the former governor launched his campaign—and the media attention it drew on the first official day of his campaign, and were not necessarily impressed.

Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters and a former adviser to Bill Clinton on gay rights, said of the newest Republican contender, “If you want to vote for a Republican, Huntsman is probably your best option.” But he said Democrats are the real leaders on gay issues.

The Human Rights Campaign’s Fred Sainz said gay Republicans just “need someone to get excited about; there’s no one there.” Socarides added the political calculus: “Trying to run as a gay-rights moderate in a Republican presidential field is a very dubious proposition.”

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian Republican grassroots organization, said Moran’s letter was not sent out on behalf of the group, which has yet to endorse a candidate.

Cooper attended a recent event for Huntsman in Washington, D.C. But he said gay conservatives are equally interested in other candidates, such as Mitt Romney, who has upset family-values leaders with his support for ENDA, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, or Ron Paul and former Gov. Gary Johnson, both of whom advocated for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and nondiscrimination in hiring.

“ENDA is an issue that ties into the economy and job creation,” said Cooper. “For gays and lesbians who vote Republican their orientation is a part, but is not mutually exclusive to their other interests.”

Other Republican gay leaders said they would rather see more conservatism and less gay-friendliness.

“There is not a gay conservative buzz around Jon Huntsman,” said GOProud’s chairman Chris Barron. He added that the candidate has “challenges” connecting to conservatives, gay or straight, because he served as ambassador to China in the Obama administration and supported the expansion of S-CHIP, or taxpayer-funded health insurance for children.

As for the email appeal, Barron said: “I’m not sure how this is going to be helpful to Huntsman.”

“I know more conservative gays who support Herman Cain than Jon Huntsman, because [Cain is] out there talking about issues conservatives care about.”

Same-sex marriage is not one of those issues, said Barron: “I don’t think anyone has the stomach for this debate right now. We’re on the brink of a financial meltdown.”

But the same-sex marriage debate rages on in California courts and in New York politics, spurred on by the efforts of unlikely conservatives such as lawyer Ted Olson, who recently wrote an op-ed with New York’s attorney general to support the state’s same-sex marriage initiative, or former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who went to Albany to lobby for it.

The marriage issue is likely to grow, not diminish, as a national talking point, whether conservatives like it or not.

For the first time, Gallup polling found that a majority of Americans, 53 percent, support same-sex marriage. Democrats and independents saw significant jumps in support since last year, with Republican support remaining flat at 28 percent.

The National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown, who has been fighting same-sex marriage and civil unions for years, is watching Huntsman closely.

“He has said he supports civil unions, and I haven’t heard him say he supports a constitutional amendment to protect marriage,” Brown said. “Same-sex marriage is a defining issue, and I think his position is troubling.”

Brown is pleased to see that most of the GOP’s 2012 presidential candidates are decidedly against it. At the recent CNN debate, five of the seven said they would support an amendment defining marriage as being between a man and woman. Huntsman, by just announcing Tuesday, missed the debate, but he’ll have to answer that question soon.

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Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.

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