Shortly after the 2012 election ended, David Kochel, the top-flight Iowa Republican strategist who had run Mitt Romney's campaign in the state, decided to stop keeping his opinion of marriage equality to himself. He had spent years helping presidential candidates court the conservative Christian voters who dominated Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, but he had grown increasingly convinced that his party was on the wrong side of the marriage debate, both morally and politically.
With the campaign over, Kochel — who declined to comment for this story — began turning up at gatherings for pro-gay Republicans, calling on the GOP to modernize its social agenda, and appearing on local TV talk shows, demanding to know why the party of "freedom and liberty" shouldn't support marriage rights. "Frankly," he told one interviewer, "the culture wars are kind of over, and Republicans largely lost."
According to people who discussed it with him at the time, Kochel was suffering from post-2012 burnout, and joked that he had taken on this little mission because he was tired of caucus politics, and wanted to ensure that he wouldn't get sucked back into another race in 2016. After all, what kind of Republican presidential candidate would want to hire an outspoken marriage equality advocate as a campaign strategist?
As it turned out, Jeb Bush would.
When Bush officially launches his presidential bid later this year, he will likely do so with a campaign manager who has urged the Republican Party to adopt a pro-gay agenda; a chief strategist who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief arguing for marriage equality in California; a longtime adviser who once encouraged her minister to stick to his guns in preaching equality for same-sex couples; and a communications director who is openly gay.
To an extent that would have been unthinkable in past elections, one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination has stocked his inner circle with advisers who are vocal proponents of gay rights. And while the Bush camp says his platform will not be shaped by his lieutenants' personal beliefs, many in the monied, moderate, corporate wing of the GOP — including pragmatic donors, secular politicos, and other members of the establishment — are cheering the early hires as a sign that Bush will position himself as the gay-friendly Republican in the 2016 field.
In addition to Kochel, who is expected to run the national campaign, Bush has hired Tim Miller, a star communications and research operative who is gay; longtime aide Sally Bradshaw, whose support for her pro-gay preacher recently showed up in a New York Times profile; and Mike Murphy, the veteran GOP consultant who joined other prominent Republicans in signing a 2013 brief calling on the Supreme Court to overturn California's same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8. What makes this band of operatives unique is not just that they support gay rights, but that many have made it their mission in the past to bring the party along with them.
With his team in place, Bush has attracted a wave of early support from many of the party's most prominent gay rights advocates. Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chair who authored the Prop. 8 brief, has reportedly been introducing Bush to donors. At least a dozen of the brief's 80 signatories have either endorsed him, donated to him, or gone to work for him. Tom Ridge, the former Homeland Security secretary who regularly preaches LGBT inclusion to his fellow Republicans, has declared himself an enthusiastic Bush-backer.
Asked how Bush's team might influence the way he approaches LGBT issues in the campaign, spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said he has been primarily concerned with "picking the most talented staff available," and that, "Gov. Bush's position on gay marriage is clear. If he pursues a run, it will be premised on his agenda and views, not anyone else's."
Bush's official stance is that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that states should have the right to craft their own laws on the matter, free of tampering from federal courts.
But inside Bush's orbit, some believe his personal feelings on the subject may have evolved beyond his on-the-record statements. Three Republican supporters who have recently spoken with Bush as he's blitzed the GOP fundraising circuit told BuzzFeed News they came away with the impression that on the question of marriage equality, he was supportive at best and agnostic at worst.
"He wants to do the respectful, human thing," said one of the Republicans, a donor who requested anonymity to comment on private conversations.
If, as many observers expect, the Supreme Court rules this June to extend marriage rights to all same-sex couples nationwide, some of Bush's pro-gay donors are hoping he will use the moment to fully pivot toward an embrace of marriage equality — turning himself into the first serious pro-gay GOP presidential candidate.
“His thinking appears to have evolved,” said David Aufhauser, a former senior Treasury official who co-hosted a fundraiser for Bush earlier this month in Virginia. Aufhauser, well known in GOP circles for his gay rights advocacy, stressed that he doesn’t speak for Bush, but contended that the candidate would benefit from opening up about how he now views the marriage issue. He suggested Bush deliver a high-profile “statement of principles” following the Court’s decision this summer, pledging to "remove all barriers of state discrimination," discussing how he "abhors hate based on orientation," and also championing strong protections for churches.
If handled right, Aufhauser argued, Bush could draw a sharp contrast between himself and other Republicans — and in a twist that would defy the chatter about the generational divide in the GOP field, he could even succeed in siphoning off younger voters from opponents like Rand Paul or Marco Rubio. "When the governor speaks on this issue, I'm confident people like my kids — a demographic the party needs — will find him to be thoughtful and embracing," he said.
As for any concern that such a move might make Bush seem like a bandwagon fan who only starts rooting for the team once they're celebrating in the end zone, Aufhauser said, "It's worth noting that President Obama did not support the concept until his last campaign — i.e., the twilight of his political life."
It wouldn't be the first time Bush had changed his position on LGBT issues. When he was running for governor of Florida in 1994 as a right-wing crusader, he wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald arguing that LGBT people should not receive specific legal protections: "We have enough special categories, enough victims, without creating even more… [Should] sodomy be elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion? My answer is No." When BuzzFeed News reported on the article in January, Bush's spokeswoman moved quickly to disown it, saying it "does not reflect Gov. Bush's views now."
At the same time last month, as Bush’s home state of Florida was hosting its first same-sex unions, he released a statement that was widely noted for its mollifying tone, urging "respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue — including couples making lifetime commitments to each other… and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty."
If the statement seemed to represent a change of heart over the past two decades, it also reflected the political calculus of Bush's message man, Mike Murphy. In a Time column just after the 2012 election, he wrote of the GOP's electoral problems, "We repel younger voters, who are much more secular than their parents, with our opposition to same-sex marriage and our scolding tone on social issues."
But Gregory Angelo, the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said he believes Bush's softened tone reveals something deeper than savvy spin.
"Certainly don't discount the influence of top-level advisers," Angelo said. "But at the end of the day, these calls are all made by the guy in charge… I look at these statements that Mr. Bush has made, and I don't think that he's just parroting talking points that he's being given by his advisers. I think he genuinely feels those things."
Of course, Bush could face substantial political risks if he chooses to lean in to a pro-LGBT message during the primaries. He is already viewed with deep suspicion by many conservatives for his positions on immigration and Common Core education standards; adding gay issues to the baggage could be what tips the scales from being an occasionally frustrating but acceptably daring McCain-like maverick, to an elitist, Huntsman-like squish. Already, some Evangelicals are circulating stories cautioning against Kochel's nefarious influence on the candidate.
But as long as the fundraising race continues to consume Bush's efforts and attention, there is nothing but upside. The GOP donor class — heavily concentrated in secular metropolitan centers where the LGBT culture wars don't rate — generally supports marriage equality, and finds pulpit-pounding activists embarrassing.
One senior Republican fundraiser with close ties to several mega-donors said it is increasingly important for candidates to reject conservative dogmas on the marriage issue in order to get a hearing from big-dollar contributors.
"It hasn't become a litmus test yet, but as far as how people are viewing your ticket to entry, you have to be approaching the LGBT issue with a new mindset in order to be taken seriously," the fundraiser said. "They want to win. And they believe that if Republicans nominate a candidate who is perceived as anti-gay, that will be a net liability in the 2016 elections."
The party's most prominent pro-gay mega-donor, hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer, has yet to pick a 2016 horse — but some Bush insiders believe his early gestures toward LGBT inclusion will help give him an inside track to the investor's cash. Singer reportedly spent time earlier this week fielding pitches on behalf of several likely presidential contenders.
In an interview, Tyler Deaton, who runs a pro-LGBT Republican group founded by Singer, American Unity Fund, praised Bush for the "very respectful and thoughtful" tone he has taken while discussing the marriage issue. But he also said he's hopeful that the political climate will encourage other GOP candidates to follow Bush's lead. He noted that all four of the early primaries and caucuses next year will take place in states that perform same-sex unions, and that a majority of Republican voters under 50 now support marriage equality.
"The entire 2016 primary is going to take place in a new context," he said. "Compared to 2012 where I feel like candidates were in a race to the bottom in how they could talk about LGBT freedom. There were some really unfortunate moments in that campaign."
While Bush and his team weigh just how far he should go in his LGBT support this election, some pro-gay Republicans are already calling the campaign a marked improvement from 2012, when Romney faced a noisy backlash from social conservatives outraged that he had hired a gay man to serve as his foreign policy spokesman. The aide was gone within weeks.
"I guess what's interesting is that I haven't seen that type of pushback now in 2015 in the wake of these hires," Angelo, of Log Cabin Republicans, said. "There were a lot of lessons learned in the 2012 election cycle."