NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Here’s a scene from conservatives’ biggest conference of the year that wouldn’t have happened during the last presidential cycle.
It’s last Thursday. The event? A small, breakout panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington called “The Future of Marriage in America.” One panelist advocated a hard line and a tough campaign against marriage equality in the United States. She railed against federal courts for their entry into the debate.
“We should be able to have a debate about this most fundamental institution and its future in America,” said the panelist, The Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall.
There was a clap, perhaps two. And then a smattering of boos across the room, drowning out any applause.
Conservatives at this conference — many young and libertarian-leaning — are done with the kind of moral lecturing that has come to define the Republican Party’s recent history.
Gone are the days of 2006, less than a decade ago, when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told this conference he’d pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
In are the days in which more and more Republicans — especially the younger and youngish ones — long for candidates who are opening up the party’s umbrella. More Republicans than ever are saying that gay marriage should be a constitutionally protected right.
Justin Crolik, a 22-year-old student at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, said he was looking for a “young candidate who is not afraid to talk about social issues.” Austin Borchardt, a 19-year-old student, said he was supporting Rand Paul in part because topics like gay marriage are going to be “pretty big issues” to him.
“I like Rand Paul,” added James Arisco, a 21-year-old student from Danbury, Conn., “because he’s conservative fiscally, and socially more lenient on things like gay marriage.”
These days, it seems like a federal judge in a new state strikes down a state-level ban on gay marriage every week. On Monday, it was Nebraska. And later this year, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments and decide a landmark challenge that could potentially expand same-sex unions throughout the nation.
“That decision is going to be a flashpoint for the Republican Party,” one activist supporting a social conservative candidate told Fusion last month in Iowa. “That’s when you’ll find out how big of an issue it really still is.”
Likely GOP presidential candidates in attendance at the conference — from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) — tended to avoid the topic altogether or offer a vague sentiment when asked directly.
In a conversation with Fox News host Sean Hannity, even conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said it should be left up to the states and left it at that.
More moderate voices were also in tune with that sentiment. Hannity asked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who recently hired an openly gay spokesman as his likely communications aide in a presidential race, if his views had changed on marriage at all from when he was governor.
“I believe in traditional marriage,” Bush said, and that was that.
All of this points to a more open and inclusive party looking to adopt the Republican National Committee’s post-2012 election recommendations that the party should be more “welcoming and inclusive” on gay-rights issues. Still, the American Conservative Union — which runs CPAC — itself wrestled with controversy over the past few weeks after a pro-gay rights GOP group called the Log Cabin Republicans accused the ACU of deliberately excluding it from becoming a sponsor of the conference.
And the panel devoted to the debate on marriage at the conference revealed some of the potential roadblocks still in the way. Two of the three panelists urged Republicans to be more vocal and stand for the party’s traditional stance on marriage. Marshall said she’d like to see all candidates point out the “connection” between marriage and limited government, and to express that “it matters what marriage is.”
Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, made the economic argument in favor of “traditional” marriage to the audience. She said two-parent households could help “end poverty overnight,” citing large income disparities single-parent and two-parent households.
“The best thing you can do as a mother is to give your child to his father, and have both his mother and his father in the home,” MacDonald said.
But even as some were still making that argument, it was noticeable who wasn’t. Last year, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) made much of the same argument to the crowd. This year, the economic case against gay marriage was nowhere to be found — he decided to criticize President Obama over foreign policy.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.