Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry
As the campaign to win marriage nationwide picked up national momentum, Freedom to Marry devised a plan to identify and lift up voices of young conservative leaders who could represent -- in the media and at national and state GOP gatherings --the rapidly increasing support for the freedom to marry among young Republicans. While polling showed that younger Republican voters were moving toward – and eventually reached – majority support (a May 2012 poll by ABC News/Washington Post showed that 46% of self-identified Republicans aged 18-44 were in favor of the freedom to marry), Republican elected officials and spokespeople were overwhelmingly and vocally opposed. In seeking to demonstrate that our cause was bipartisan, we wanted to have spokespeople who would give voice to this significant amount of support among Republicans and help us change the narrative about conservatives and the freedom to marry in the United States.
Launched with a group of nine operatives and strategists who constituted the leadership committee of the Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, the group eventually grew to 70 such leaders. These Young Conservatives together showcased their support for the freedom to marry based on their belief in personal liberty, limited government, and upholding values such as commitment to others, stability, responsibility and family. These professed conservative American values aligned well with Freedom to Marry’s own message frame while resonating with Republicans.
The program was managed by Jo Deutsch, Freedom to Marry’s Federal Director based in Washington, D.C. with support from D.C. staff - Che Ruddell-Tabisola and Kirsten Lance; the campaign managers we brought on, Tyler Deaton and Jerri Ann Henry; and other Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry members.
Campaign Goals and Launch
The original goals of the Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry program were to:
- Recruit and message train 5-10 spokespersons to make the case for Freedom to Marry’s Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry program in the media, at GOP events, and through organizational outreach
- Create a Young Conservatives webpage on the Freedom to Marry website and develop a Young Conservatives Facebook page in an effort to recruit supporters
- Create a video of the spokespeople to use on the webpage/Facebook page to help elevate the voices of young conservatives
- Organize a kick-off event in Washington, D.C. during the month of July and an event at the RNC Convention in Tampa, FL
- Pitch spokespersons for purposes of earned media (television, radio, online and print)
The launch of Young Conservatives was held in the National Republican Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C. and attended by more than 100 notable Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians. Speakers included Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Freedom to Marry National Campaign Director Marc Solomon, Young Conservative for the Freedom to Marry Craig Stowell (a non-gay ex-Marine from New Hampshire), and Torrey Shearer, a federal lobbyist and life-long Republican activist. Stories ran in papers across the country announcing the launch of the program.
Growth and Expanded Outreach
Following the 2012 election, we grew Young Conservatives to include prominent voices from around the country, including media commentators such as Margaret Hoover, S.E. Cupp, and Meghan McCain; presidential campaign operatives such as Matt David, Zac Moffatt, and Alex Lundry; and more than 60 other individuals who represented the next generation of conservative movement leadership. These Young Conservatives had worked for conservative and libertarian organizations like the Cato Institute, as well as for political campaigns and officeholders including the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney; Senators Susan Collins and Marco Rubio; Utah Governor Jon Huntsman; Texas Governor Rick Perry; and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. By focusing on “rising stars” within party infrastructure, we were accessing leaders who were being looked to as the future of their political parties. They had large networks and had already gained respect through their accomplishments.
Together, the members worked to encourage more conservatives to stand up, speak out, and support the freedom to marry by joining and adding new perspectives and experiences to the national conversation about marriage. They also worked to end laws in the states that barred same-sex couples from marriage, as well as to repeal the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act.
During the first year, Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry held a number of events, the most notable of which was a reception at the 2012 Republican National Convention. More than 100 attendees, including a significant media contingent, attended and a number of news stories flowed out of the event.
In 2014, active Young Conservatives member Tyler Deaton (who had been Freedom to Marry’s key operative in our successful work to defend marriage in New Hampshire against attempts to undo it) was named the group’s campaign manager and took the lead in managing the program. Under his leadership, the number of Young Conservatives grew ¬– as did media attention in the program. In 2015, Tyler stepped down as campaign manager; we replaced him with active Young Conservative for the Freedom to Marry, Jerri Ann Henry.
Reform the Platform
In April 2014, Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry launched a $1 million effort to reform the 2016 GOP platform, following on the successful effort Freedom to Marry had led in 2012 to include a marriage plank in the Democratic National Convention platform.
The immediate goal here wasn’t to include language supporting the freedom to marry—under current circumstances, that goal would not be taken seriously by enough party officials—but instead to remove the shockingly harsh, divisive language that had been inserted in the 2012 platform and replace it with the following:
We believe that marriage matters both as a religious institution and as a fundamental, personal freedom. Because marriage-rooted in love and lifelong commitment-is one of the foundations of civil society, as marriage thrives, so our nation thrives.
We believe that the health of marriage nationwide directly affects the social and economic well-being of individuals and families, and the undermining families leads to more government costs and more government control over the lives of its citizens. Therefore, we believe in encouraging the strength and stability of all families.
We recognize that there are diverse and sincerely held views on civil marriage within the Party, and that support for allowing same-sex couples the freedom to marry has grown substantially in our own Party. Given this journey that so many Americans, including Republicans, are on, we encourage and welcome a thoughtful conversation among Republicans about the meaning and importance of marriage, and commit our Party to respect for all families and fairness and freedom for all Americans.
We launched the platform push with trips to early presidential primary states by members of the Young Conservatives. They worked to build support for changing the platform among party officials, met with other likeminded Republicans, and began providing a counter-voice in the state-wide (and sometimes national) media about support for marriage.
Prior to the launch of the Reform the Platform Campaign, Campaign Manager Tyler Deaton, member Margaret Hoover, and Freedom to Marry lobbyist Kathryn Lehman met with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and other RNC officials to discuss the campaign. Meetings were also set with National Log Cabin officials, College Republicans and other key Republican leaders and activists.
Throughout 2014, members of Young Conservatives traveled to all the early Presidential Primary states including New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas to discuss the “Reform the Platform” campaign.
Selected media stories about Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry:
Meet the Young Republicans Fighting Their Party on Gay Rights, Vanity Fair, August 2015
Young Conservatives Are Setting Out a Crusade Against Homophobic Party Language, National Journal, June 2014
Conservative Same-Sex Marriage Proponents Push for Changes in Republican Platform in South Carolina, Washington Post, December 2014
Key Lessons Learned
- After the 2012 elections, the GOP issued a post-mortem report that highlighted how the party’s anti-gay stances served as a barrier to entry to many young voters. That report provided us with an opportunity that we sought to seize through the Young Conservatives effort. With increased levels of support for marriage within the GOP contrasting with the overwhelming anti-marriage narratives coming out of GOP officials, we knew we could make an impact in the media by raising the voice of those who stood for the freedom to marry. We looked carefully for media opportunities for doing so, deploying spokespeople to make the case at the RNC convention in 2012 and in early primary states. Similar to the Democratic push we did in 2012, our Republican platform initiative offered up conflict that we imagined the media would want to cover—would our side be able to gain traction given the fervent opposition of the religious right? From our vantage point, winning on the platform initiative was important, but even if we didn’t succeed, using the effort to drive our true narrative that the majority of Republican voters under 50 supported the freedom to marry would be exceedingly helpful.
- Develop messages that resonate with your constituency: Through thorough research and polling, Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry worked hard to develop authentic messages that resonated with conservative audiences and aligned with their beliefs.
- Allow individuals to grow in their support: Many conservatives assumed they could not support the freedom to marry and maintain their conservative principles. These individuals had to grow in their understanding and take intermediate steps towards support. Supporting the various steps along the journey was a critical component to our success.
- Give supporters a goal to organize around: The “Reform the Platform” campaign was (and continues to be as of this writing in late 2015) an effective frame for engaging conservatives, growing support, and contributing to the overall national progress. The program gave advocates something very specific to meet with lawmakers, party officials, and the press about. It also tapped into our Young Conservative leaders’ desire to prevail and offered a clear outcome and a finite timeframe in which to accomplish the outcome.
As Freedom to Marry wound down in late 2015, the right-of-center American Unity Fund took responsibility for continuing the Young Conservatives program and the “Reform the Platform” campaign.