Many Republican legislators in Virginia, faced with those numbers, are hesitating to defend the gay marriage ban on its merits.
Their focus instead is on arguing that the attorney general has a duty to defend the ban because it’s a law passed by the voters, said Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“In Virginia it’s the same thing that’s happened nationally: Public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of same-sex marriage,” Sabato said. “It was an alien concept for most people. Then the more they thought about it and the more they discussed it with gay friends and gay family members, the more they were inclined to back it.”
As recently as 2009, Gallup found that only 40 percent of Americans thought that gay and lesbian marriages should be legally recognized. That number has swelled to nearly 60 percent, including 81 percent of Americans under age 30, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll last year.
The survey was taken soon before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act last June, giving momentum to efforts around the country to defeat prohibitions on gays and lesbians getting married.
The reversal in public opinion puts Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage in a tough spot that was nearly impossible to foresee a few years ago. Republican political strategist Karl Rove used opposition to gay marriage in mobilizing voters to help re-elect President George W. Bush in 2004. At the time, he called it one of the most potent issues to inspire the electorate.
Now Rove says he could imagine the next Republican presidential candidate supporting gay marriage. Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, came out as gay in 2010 and now fights for same-sex marriage.