A divide grows in Ohio over Rob Portman's gay marriage reversal

The GOP senator has won cheers from progressives nationwide. Conservatives in his home state are a tougher sell

Published April 5, 2013 12:46PM (EDT)

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH)        (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Republican Sen. Rob Portman's reversal on marriage equality was applauded by gay rights advocates and others across the country, but conservatives in his home state of Ohio have denounced the change and mobilized to block his reelection.

As reported in the New York Times:

No one heckled Senator Rob Portman during his first appearance before thousands of Ohioans since becoming the most prominent elected Republican in the country to endorse same-sex marriage... but for some of the Ohioans who acknowledged Mr. Portman, doubts flickered below the surface.

“Senator!” said one spectator, Pete Kidnocker, reaching out to shake Mr. Portman’s hand. But after Mr. Portman passed, Mr. Kidnocker said he would vote for an alternative in a Republican primary and accused the senator of “betraying his principles.”

“If you’re a Christian and you believe in those principles, whether your son or daughter is a homosexual, you can’t change your principles,” he said.

While the Republican establishment has pledged to support Portman if he runs for reelection, other Ohioans believe the senator is all but guaranteed to lose his conservative and evangelical base in 2016:

Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, said that he would now oppose Mr. Portman’s re-election “tooth and nail,” and that without the support of the 40 percent of evangelical voters in the Republican base, Mr. Portman, who will be a candidate again in 2016, “cannot win, he will not win.”

Mr. Burress, a longtime supporter of Mr. Portman, said the senator called him the night before he went public on March 15 and said, “I have some bad news.”

“I thought he was talking father to father with me,” said Mr. Burress, who supports discredited therapies aimed at changing sexual orientation. “I spent four and a half years on the board of an organization that helped people walk away from homosexuality. It is not innate; you’re not born that way.”

“That devastated me, that he embraced his son’s behavior.”

But despite the heated rhetoric, the tide may be turning on gay marriage in Ohio. As the Times notes, 42 percent of Republicans in the state favored repealing the state’s gay marriage ban.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Gay Marriage Marriage Equality Ohio Rob Portman