SACRAMENTO, California — A vote to recognize the Log Cabin Republicans this weekend by the California GOP was a sea change for the acceptance of gays in the party and a win for moderates.
Delegates voted 861-293 to charter the 240-member California Log Cabin Republicans — a move that gave official party designation to the group that supports gay rights and sent a signal about the direction of the party that has struggled for a unified vision.
"Every time someone says the Republican Party is anti-gay, or they don't want you there, this shows that they do want you there, and we've gone as far as saying we officially recognize you and deputize you to go out and bring people into this party," said Charles Moran, the group's outgoing chairman.
Moran worked for the past two years with the group's 10 California chapters to align its rules with the state party. He and others argued that the group's mission is to promote the party and its candidates to an often-skeptical public, particularly younger voters, and not about promoting LGBT legislation or values.
Log Cabin Republicans have been a visible presence for several years at the party's twice yearly conventions, holding a popular Log Cabin Luau party with rainbow leis and free cocktails.
Yet even after Sunday's vote, the party's official platform states its opposition to promoting "alternative lifestyles," and the party remains opposed to gay marriage and same-sex partner benefits, child custody and adoption.
A much bigger fight over the platform could be on tap when the party meets again in September.
The California Republican Party is the first state party to officially recognize a statewide Log Cabin group, although the Florida GOP first recognized its Broward County chapter in the 1980s, said Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of the national Log Cabin Republicans.
"From a poetic standpoint, this is a tremendous milestone," Angelo said.
He noted that some state parties, such as New York, do not give official recognition to any groups but have long supported gay members.
Those who opposed recognition of the Log Cabin group argued that the party's bylaws prohibit endorsing groups that promote "special agendas" or advocate for "certain lifestyle preferences."
Assemblywoman Shannon Grove of Bakersfield cited those points in an exchange Saturday with the group's incoming chairman, John Musella. Grove said the party has welcomed gay members but she couldn't support the charter.
"Unless there was a commitment to celebrate the pro-family platform from the Log Cabins, there's no way I could support it," Grove told Musella in front of several reporters. "This is a pro-family organization and I think the bylaws speak clearly about that."
Musella later sent a tweet to Grove inviting her to dinner at his home with his husband "to chat family values."
State Sen. Mike Morrell of Rancho Cucamonga invoked President Ronald Reagan's 1976 admonition to Republicans not to compromise "on political principles for political expediency" in urging fellow delegates against recognizing the group.
Moran said the group was formed in 1977 to back Reagan in his opposition to the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 California ballot measure that would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools. Reagan wrote an op-ed against the measure and was blamed by supporters for its defeat.
Others were still miffed that the group did not endorse President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election.
"Symbolically it represents a real change and a recognition by the Republican Party, particularly the California Republican Party, of changing attitudes on gay marriage and gay and lesbian issues," said Benjamin Bishin, a political science professor at the University of California-Riverside who studies minority groups in politics. "It seems that in recent years social conservatives have been winning out and I think that's what makes this so significant."
Californians have had a dramatic change of heart on gay rights issues in the last 15 years.
Just 39 percent favored same-sex marriage in a 2009 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. In September 2013, 61 percent of Californians favored gay marriage, while 53 percent of Republicans were opposed.
The vote for inclusion may soften the Republican brand in California, but the party still has a long way to go in gaining a broader foothold with the electorate. Its registration has fallen to 28 percent, and many at the weekend convention were more focused on the dearth of viable candidates for competitive races such as next year's U.S. Senate contest.