Ken Mehlman Launches Gay Rights Project

The former RNC chairman created Project Right Side, a research and analysis nonprofit, with the belief that conservatives succeed when they “attract new supporters to timeless traditions.”

BY Julie Bolcer

November 21 2012 1:47 PM ET

Ken Mehlman

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman has launched a new nonprofit dedicated to research and analysis that identifies the intersections between conservative beliefs and the growing public support for gay and lesbian civil rights measures, including marriage equality, employment nondiscrimination protections, and antibullying laws.

Mehlman announced the launch of Project Right Side in an op-ed posted Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal. The piece focused on the need to align the Republican Party with the demographic changes displayed in the wake of this month’s election.

“Conservatives — and I count myself as one — succeed when we attract new supporters to timeless traditions,” he wrote. “The Republican Party's loss in this month's presidential election resulted partly from a failure to embrace some of America's fastest-growing constituencies. One area of significant change is in attitudes toward legal equality for gay Americans.

“Some misperceive the issue of marriage equality as exclusively progressive,” Mehlman continued. “Yet what could be more conservative than support for more freedom and less government? And what freedom is more basic than the right to marry the person you love? Smaller, less intrusive government surely includes an individual deciding whom to marry. Allowing civil marriage for same-sex couples will cultivate community stability, encourage fidelity and commitment, and foster family values.”

Mehlman served as campaign manager for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 and came out as gay in 2010. Since then, he has argued the conservative case to help pass legislation including “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal in Congress and marriage equality measures in states including New York, New Hampshire, and Maryland, his native state. He also serves on the board of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group that brought the federal lawsuit against Proposition 8 with attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, who represent opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Project Right Side commissioned a poll of 16,000 voters over the past year with emphasis on Republican and swing voters in battleground states, including some 2,000 such voters on Election Night, according to Mehlman. Findings from their work and other surveys show that a majority of Americans (49% to 46%) support marriage equality, with strong support among independents (58%) and voters under age 45 (60%) and quickly growing support across demographics including African-Americans (51%) and Hispanics (52%).

According to Mehlman, the research found that a majority of respondents oppose the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages performed at the state level. Pollsters also found that marriage equality supporters felt more motivated by their stance on the issue than opponents and that Republicans continue to grow in their support of a range of legal protections for gay and lesbian Americans.

“Our Election Night exit poll of 2,000 voters in battleground states (of whom 32% were Republican, 36% Democratic and 32% independent) showed a majority opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996: 62% believe that if states recognize same-sex marriage, the federal government should grant same-sex couples the same benefits as heterosexual couples,” he wrote.

“The marriage-equality issue is more important to supporters than to opponents,” Mehlman continued. “While this election focused on the economy, President Obama's support for marriage equality was a positive motivator for nearly three out of four Obama voters in battleground states, according to exit polls. Almost half of his voters (45%) said it made them ‘much more’ likely to support him. Only 35% of Romney supporters said that the former governor's opposition made them ‘much more’ likely to support him.”

“Republicans are increasingly supportive of legal protections for gay Americans,” he said. “Of the 7,000 Republicans we surveyed, 73% support employment nondiscrimination protections for gays and lesbians, 61% support safe-schools protections (such as those signed into law by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) and 46% support allowing same-sex couples to jointly file tax returns.”

Project Right Side, with its focus on research and analysis, fills a different niche than American Unity PAC, another high-profile Republican effort. The PAC launched by hedge fund manager Paul Singer seeks to encourage Republican federal lawmakers to take pro-equality stances. Its endorsed congressional candidates met with mixed results at the ballot box this month.

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