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Republican Governor Panders on Gay Rights

Same old, same old? A promising Republican politician, considered a darkhorse candidate for his party’s Presidential nomination in 2012, appears to be leveraging the issue of gay rights for political gain. So report Marc Ambinder and Justin Miller at the Atlantic:

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R) stunned his state when his spokesperson announced the governor’s support for civil unions. 70 percent of Utahns oppose civil unions, but their objections won’t count against Huntsman who said he won’t run for a third term as governor – but they could weigh heavily on a 2012 White House run.

Utahans are already chastising Hunstman for the move — and accusing him of playing politics:

At the same time, [Hunstman] supported legislation to grant some partner benefits the next year. Legislators already think he’s a communist. Now, with an 80-plus approval rating and re-election under his belt, he has nothing to lose.

Except Utah.

“It’s clear that he is not running again in Utah,” Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, told the Deseret News . “He’s moving to a national agenda.”

So much for speculation he wants to run for Senate.

Hold on a second. In case you missed the fine print, Hunstman, the governor of perhaps the most socially conservative state in the country, has just come out in favor of civil unions? And is being accused by his rivals of seeking to score political gain by doing so?

Back up a second. Is this, in fact, politically savvy for Hunstman? Civil unions are now supported by something like 60 percent of the country. It’s doubtful that a plurality of Republicans support civil unions at this time. But in four years, it might be pretty close. Support for civil unions has increased at an extremely predictable rate, gaining a point or two every year. If the pattern holds, then by 2012 around two-thirds of voters will support civil unions nationwide. Even then, I doubt that you’ll see a plurality of Republican primary voters in favor. But it might be not more than a small liability in the primaries, especially if it helps Hunstman appeal to independents (who will presumably not have competitive Democratic primaries to vote in come 2012.) And a position in favor of civil unions will probably be an asset — perhaps a pretty significant one — in the general election, a litmus test that independents and younger voters will use to determine whether a Republican opponent is reasonable or a Palinosaur.

Or perhaps Hunstman, who is not running for re-election and has plenty of popularity to spare anyway, is simply expressing his conscience.

Either way, this strikes me as a pretty significant moment — and in its own quiet way, just as much as a cultural signifier as Proposition 8. The days in which bigotry can be exchanged for votes may be numbered.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.