GOP Candidates Thread Needle on Gay Marriage

GOP Candidates Thread Needle on Gay Marriage
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With gay marriage becoming one of the biggest political stories this campaign cycle, Republican candidates now find themselves on difficult terrain, much as leading Democrats did years ago: neither ready to embrace same-sex marriage from a policy perspective, nor keen to actively oppose it. 

By the end of June, a ruling on the issue by the Supreme Court is expected to have put Republicans at ease or on edge.

A judicial decision could settle the issue for some candidates hoping to put it in their rear-view mirrors as the party works to appeal to a broader, more diverse and modern electorate. But presidential hopefuls will also have to anticipate continued pressure from an active evangelical base most animated and galvanized by this issue.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is drawing a stark contrast by openly supporting legalized gay marriage, as most Democrats have. On Tuesday, her campaign switched out her red and blue logo with a rainbow version and tweeted a statement from Clinton: “Every loving couple and family deserves to be recognized and treated equally under the law across our nation.” 

As a candidate in 2008, Clinton was not nearly so unequivocal, telling a group of gay elected officials: ''I support states making the decision,” the Washington Post reported. Barack Obama opposed gay marriage that year too, but by 2012, he supported it.

The GOP now faces a similar political dilemma. On the one hand, Republicans must keep the support of their conservative base, which comprises many people who still view gay marriage as a non-starter, while still appealing to a national electorate that has moved dramatically toward support of gay marriage. 

“What I’m seeing a lot of is Republicans trying to thread the needle on this issue,” said Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans.

The solution for some Republicans has been to simply keep quiet.

“I don’t even want to talk about it,” Ben Carson said in Florida on Monday when asked whether he thinks being gay is a choice, the Miami Herald Tribune reported. “Because whether it is a choice or not, it doesn’t matter.”

But a series of recent political events has made the issues of same-sex marriage and gay rights impossible for Republicans to fully avoid.

Last month, backlash over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics worried could allow businesses to deny services to gay or lesbian couples, seeped over into the Republican field as candidates were asked to either condone or reject the law. 

And this week, the national focus has shifted once again to same-sex marriage as the Supreme Court hears arguments that will inform its decision later this year to uphold or overturn state bans.

That decision will steer the direction of the political discourse to come — and could prove a gift to Republicans who are unenthusiastic about engaging on the issue. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush indicated in January that, although he supports marriage laws being decided by individual states, were the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, he would not champion a constitutional amendment that would return authority to states. 

"We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law," Bush said. "I hope that we can show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue.”

The Republicans who appeared in Iowa last weekend at a Faith and Freedom Coalition event struck a tone at the opposite end of the spectrum, hoping to appeal to evangelical voters. 

Sen. Ted Cruz warned of liberals pushing “for mandatory gay marriage in all 50 states.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said If the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage, “I believe it’s reasonable for the people of America to consider a constitutional amendment that would affirm the ability of states” to ban same-sex marriage. 

Indeed, the issue promises to be something of a litmus test for the most conservative candidates.

“If any candidate chooses to ignore this issue, they will do so at their own peril,” said Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

But the topic has evolved for Republicans even in Iowa, where gay marriage has been legal since 2009. Today it is one of 37 states where the practice is legal, either by court order or a popular vote.

Iowa Republicans now see gay marriage “as less of a cutting-edge issue that’s going to determine the future of the state,” said Doug Gross, who chaired Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign in the Hawkeye State.

Still, the party has not yet come around to gay marriage to the point that Iowa Republican caucus-goers would likely accept a candidate who explicitly supports gay marriage.

“I think they could support a candidate who didn’t talk about it,” Gross said, “but a candidate who supports it is maybe moving a little too quickly for the base of the party.”

Republicans are meeting with a starkly different political landscape in New Hampshire, however, where a libertarian-minded electorate on the whole does not oppose gay marriage. Same-sex marriage has been legal there since 2010. 

“If you poll in New Hampshire, I bet gay marriage is number 10 out of eight issues,” said Steve Duprey, the Republican National Committeeman for New Hampshire. “I have not heard any potential candidate talk about gay marriage in New Hampshire yet.”

However, Granite State Republicans last year added anti-gay marriage language to the state party’s official platform — just as the national Republican Party still defines marriage in its platform as between a man and a woman.

Some Republican candidates have begun to express a level of tolerance for same-sex marriage that exceeds that expressed in the party’s platform.

When Bush was asked Tuesday during a trip to Puerto Rico whether he would he attend the wedding of a gay couple, he responded in Spanish: of course he would. 

Sen. Marco Rubio responded similarly when posed this question by Fusion’s Jorge Ramos earlier this month, although Rubio said in an interview this weekend that "there is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage."   

Of course, Republicans are grappling with public opinion on gay marriage that is shifting beneath their feet, particularly among young voters. A poll this month by ABC News/Washington Post showed 61 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage; among Americans under 30, the share supporting the legalization of gay marriage rose to 78 percent.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledged this dynamic in a New York Times op-ed published last week, even as he doubled down on his own opposition to gay marriage. 

“Polls indicate that the American consensus is changing — but like many other believers, I will not change my faith-driven view on this matter, even if it becomes a minority opinion,” Jindal wrote. 

But some Republican strategists contend that the party can continue to buck national trends and oppose same-sex marriage during the 2016 election, as long as candidates keep the debate civil. 

“They need to listen to Aretha Franklin: R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Tone will matter. It will be well understood by voters if they feel like there’s empathy and caring, [not] reproach and scorn. It’s awfully important for our party to get that right.”

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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