In the run-up to this week's Conservative Political Action Conference, right-wing Christian groups were incensed when they learned that the annual gathering of conservative activists would be co-sponsored by a gay Republican organization called GOProud. A collection of powerful social conservative groups threatened to derail the entire event with a boycott—and lost.
The boycott attempt was led by Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel, a legal advocacy organization founded by the late Jerry Falwell. After hearing that GOProud would be an official CPAC co-sponsor and would host a booth in the conference's main exhibit hall, Barber wrote in an emai to conservatives around the countryl:
"I was disturbed to learn that CPAC is allowing the 'Republican' homosexual activist group GOProud to sponsor a booth at the 2010 conference. Among other things, GOProud advocates in favor of both 'gay marriage' and 'civil unions,' against pro-marriage constitutional amendments ; is pushing for the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and advocates in favor of federal 'partnership benefits' for homosexuals. This group is pushing a radical leftist agenda that is an affront to the GOP platform, conservatism and, most importantly, the Word of God."
CPAC ignored the threat, essentially calling the evangelicals' bluff. This gave the social conservatives a choice. They could pull out of CPAC, which holds an informal poll of Republican presidential contenders. The straw poll is widely seen as an indicator of how possible candidates are playing with the conservative base. Or, they could show up and hang out with people they think are an "affront to God."
As it turned out, politics trumped God. On Thursday at Washington's Marriott Wardman hotel, representatives for both Liberty Counsel and GOProud were hosting booths in the same exhibit hall. The folks staffing the Liberty Counsel booth insisted their presence didn't mean they'd compromised their values. One young woman at the booth explained that Liberty Counsel's parent organization (Falwell's Liberty University School of Law) had yanked its financial support as a CPAC co-sponsor, as this would have forced the organization to join hands with a group that contravenes its mission. Apparently, paying the organizers in order to host an exhibit space alongside GOProud at the event didn't pose the same problem.
Meanwhile, Jimmy LaSalvia, GOProud's Hollywood-tanned executive director, was running his own booth with a few fellow conservatives sporting "Draft Cheney 2012" stickers on their dark suits. He seemed amused by the whole kerfuffle. As far as he knew, none of the other religious right groups who had planned to co-sponsor the event had followed up on their threats to withdraw their support. On the contrary—many of those groups were at CPAC in full force. Focus on the Family, hot on the heels of its wildly successful Super Bowl anti-abortion ad, is even cosponsoring XPAC, an attempt to lure young blood to the movement with hipper events at the convention. These include a "rap/jam session" with supposedly conservative rappers.
LaSalvia said that the early controversy had only attracted more supporters to GOProud, which started about nine months ago as a more conservative alternative to the older Log Cabin Republicans. Over the summer, he says, the group worked with Sen. John Thune (R-SD)on an amendment to the hate crimes bill that would have allowed states to recognize concealed weapons permits issued by other states. In other words, people packing heat in Virginia could take their hidden guns to, say, Texas, without getting busted. The measure failed, in part because of a vote by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who had actually sought to enlist anti-gay marriage advocates to help kill the provision. If states had to recognize gun permits issued by other states, she argued, that could lead to states being forced to recognize gay unions authorized outside their borders, too.
GOProud already sports 2,000 members and is apparently growing. Its CPAC booth, separated by a single table from the National Organization for Marriage, the anti-gay marriage group, drew some curious looks from conference attendees, but LaSalvia says people had been friendly. I suggested that he might have more luck signing up new members if his booth had some swag: candy, bumper stickers, free pens, shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger posters, for instance. He laughed and said, "We're hoping to win people over with our charm."
UPDATE: Well, so much for the gay/conservative comity on the CPAC exhibit floor. After CNN featured GOProud and NOM playing nice, NOM issued a nasty statement bashing the group.
"We welcome everyone's right to participate in the democratic process, but we have a message for GOProud on marriage: If you try to elect pro-gay-marriage Republicans, we will Dede Scozzafava them. The majority of Americans, and the vast majority of Republicans, support marriage as the union of husband and wife, and NOM is here to make sure these voters and their voices are heard loud and clear," the statement reads.
LaSalvia shot back to a Huffington Post reporter, dissing NOM for refusing to make such a statement to his face, given that he's standing one table away from them in the exhibit hall. "When the cameras are rolling, they can fake a smile. But when they have a message for us, they're not even man enough to walk 20 feet. They have to issue a press release," LaSalvia told HuffPost. "So I've been saying, who's the pansy at CPAC?"
MORE UPDATES: Friday night, as a raucous crowd awaited the appearance of Rep. Ron Paul, one of the up and coming young people given a chance to speak at the convention used the opportunity to bash CPAC organizers for allowing GOProud to co-sponsor the event. Ryan Sorba from the California Young Americans for Freedom provided one of the uglier moments of the convention, and Media Matters has the full video here.
Salon's Mike Madden reports that Sorba is the author of a book called "The Born Gay Hoax," and that he nearly incited a riot at Smith College two years ago with another gay-bashing speech. So while CPAC organizers might have shown some backbone by resisting calls to kick GOProud out of its event, it's hard to give them much credit for providing a guy like Sorba such a prominent platform.