AUGUSTA — In 2009, Pittsfield Republican state Rep. Stacey Fitts voted with the majority of his caucus against a bill to allow same-sex marriage in Maine. Fitts later stayed out of the fight that overturned the law after the Legislature had passed it.

Today, he wishes he hadn’t.

Fitts is one of about 20 members of the GOP who have joined Republicans United for Marriage, a new group that builds on the coalition hoping to legalize same-sex marriage at the ballot box in November. Matt McTighe, the campaign manager for the Mainers United for Marriage, the flagship organization for that effort, said during a press conference Monday that Republicans like Fitts showed that it’s no longer a “contradiction to be Republican and be for marriage equality.”

The media event at the State House was described by supporters as evidence of increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage by the party that has often opposed it. However, there is also evidence that Maine Republicans who support same-sex marriage rights will face the public backlash that Fitts feared in 2009.

Rev. Bob Emrich, a leader with the Protect Marriage Maine campaign opposing same-sex marriage, described the Monday’s GOP contingent as “insignificant” and “just another excuse” for the same-sex marriage supporters “to hold a press conference.”

“There are no leaders in that group,” he said.

“The Republican party has recognized that marriage is between a man and a woman since 1856,” he added. “These are liberal Republicans. I don’t know why these people even call themselves Republicans.”

Three members of the GOP group won’t be calling themselves legislators much longer. Fitts is termed-out. He acknowledged that he no longer faces the same pressure to oppose same-sex marriage that he did in 2009.

The two other Republican lawmakers who joined the same-sex marriage supporters on Monday – state Sen. Meredith Strang Burgess of Cumberland and Rep. David Richardson of Carmel – are not running for re-election in 2012, although Strang Burgess was the lone GOP co-sponsor of the 2009 bill to establish same-sex marriage rights.

“Some people said they would never talk to me again,” said  Burgess of the reaction to her support of the 2009 law that voters overturned.

The Republicans who spoke Monday framed their support as a mix of compassion and the GOP ideology of limited government.

“This is about the fundamental right to marry the person you love without the government getting in the way,” Strang Burgess said.

It’s unclear whether other Republicans will join. McTighe seemed
confident, saying that Monday’s launch was just the beginning of the outreach effort.

Emrich said he is unconvinced.

“They’re trying to say that the momentum is shifting, but this is what they do all the time,” Emrich said. “Now suddenly Republicans support same-sex marriage? No, they don’t.”

But there are some indications nationally that the party is warming to the idea.

Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled Legislature in New Hampshire shot down an effort to repeal that state’s same-sex marriage law. More than 100 GOP lawmakers voted to uphold it.

Tuesday is the one-year anniversary of the marriage equality law enacted by the New York State Assembly. Passage of the law required key Republican votes. The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, immediately vowed to spend $2 million to remove New Mork Republicans who supported the equality law from office.

Fred Sainz, the vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, says the NOM pledge was a “hollow threat.”

“We found that when it comes to NOM, they talk big but perform low,” said Sainz, adding that the group is losing its influence within the GOP.

“The change is happening very quickly,” he said. “More and more
Republicans are coming over to our side. They understand that marriage is one of the ultimate Republican values.”

It may have also helped that Paul Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and supporter of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, pledged to defend the New York lawmakers.

Singer, who’s son is gay, has already spent $10 million to advance same-sex marriage rights in several states. He’s also made his presence known in Maine, donating $150,000 to the Freedom to Marry political action committee on July 15.

Singer, who raised $5 million for Romney during a single fundraiser last month, recently told The New York Times that the GOP should court the gay vote.

“The Republican Party can be more of a big tent and this issue is part of that,” he told the Times.

On Monday afternoon, Emrich questioned the party loyalty of the
Republicans who joined the same-sex marriage supporters in Maine.

Emrich posted on his Facebook page that he was “sad” to see Dan Demeritt, former spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage, was among the Republicans that joined the marriage equality effort. Emrich also claimed that Demeritt approached the Christian Civic League last year seeking work as a political consultant for “our campaign to protect marriage.”

In response, Demeritt, who writes a weekly column for the Maine Sunday Telegram, shared an email he sent to Emrich last year that refutes the claim. The email showed that Demeritt was interested in assisting the league on pro-life issues.

“We never moved past an initial meeting or two,” Demeritt said. “When in September it became clear that the marriage question was moving forward, I sent Emrich an email making it clear that our differences on the initiative would prevent me from working for the Christian Civic League.”

During the press conference on Monday, Demeritt said his ability to share the highs and lows of his personal and professional life with his wife solidified his support for same-sex marriage.

“I support the freedom to marry because I want every person to have a chance at that kind of relationship,” he said.

Earlier, Fitts spoke candidly about the pressure he faced from the party to oppose the 2009 law and his regret for not “stepping forward” to oppose the repeal effort.

“That’s my own shortcoming,” he said.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

[email protected]