GOP's 2016 nominee faces same-sex marriage dilemma

Newlyweds Karla Arguello (L) and Catherina Pareto kiss after being wedded during a marriage ceremony in a Miami-Dade court room in Miami, Florida, where gay marriage became legal in January.

All the potential candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination are on record favoring the traditional definition of marriage: one man, one woman.

So far, though, most are not talking much about it.

Same-sex marriage has become a much more complicated issue for Republicans since 2004, when master strategist Karl Rove helped put gay-marriage bans on the ballot in key states to boost the party's base turnout and help reelect President George W. Bush.

Voters, including many Republicans, have become more open to allowing gay men and lesbians to wed, and the right is now recognized in 36 states. The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule in June, with most scholars expecting it to find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Yet Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore defied a federal court order requiring the state's counties to grant licenses for same-sex couples to marry, and some social conservatives in the GOP base still regard defending tradition as a litmus test and will push candidates to oppose it.

"I don't know that any Republican is making it central to their campaign, but I'm not aware of anyone who can be said to have flipped on the issue either," said Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring USA, a national conservative activist group based in Chester County. "It's as fast moving a cultural issue as I've ever seen, yet for anyone whose social conservatism is rooted in revealed truth, their position is not going to change."

Those who would be the next Republican nominee will have to weigh their personal beliefs and the passions of social conservatives in their own party against what polls show is a growing majority of Americans who accept same-sex marriage, analysts say.

New Jersey's Gov. Christie, Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - competitors for establishment support in the GOP scrum - have each said that the issue has been settled by the courts in their states and that it is important to respect "the rule of law," even though they disagree.

Christie, for instance, withdrew an appeal to the state Supreme Court of a lower judge's order to allow same-sex marriages within weeks of his 2013 reelection. Jeb Bush struck a rhetorical balance in his reaction last month when a federal judge issued an injunction allowing same-sex unions in Florida.

In addition to respecting the legitimacy of the legal process, Bush said, "I hope that we can also show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue - including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections, and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty."

Several candidates on the right end of the Republican continuum have staked out positions that could help them stand out with social conservatives. Two early-voting states, Iowa and South Carolina, have large and active populations of evangelical Christians.

"There's no such thing in the Constitution as judicial supremacy, where the courts make a ruling and it becomes, quote, 'the law of the land' by the mere ruling itself," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, said at a summit of social conservatives last month in Des Moines. For instance, Huckabee said, the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision was clearly not moral and did not have to be obeyed.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal say they want a federal constitutional amendment that would allow states to ban gay marriage regardless of any Supreme Court ruling to the contrary.

If it comes in June as expected, the decision means that same-sex marriage will be at or near the top of the national conversation as the GOP nomination battle is accelerating. And it will become part of the debate, particularly in Iowa, where lower turnout in caucuses as opposed to primaries magnifies the power of social conservatives.

Sam Clovis Jr., a Sioux City conservative activist who finished second in Iowa's GOP primary for U.S. Senate last year, said he suspected the court would find a right to same-sex marriage.

"I think it gets taken out of our hands by the Supreme Court, and same-sex marriage becomes an issue like abortion," Clovis said, noting intense battles in state legislatures, courts, and Congress 40 years after Roe v. Wade. The issue will become manifest in demands from activists for judges committed to the "original intent" of the Constitution.

"That's the question the Republican presidential candidates will have to answer," Clovis said.

Sam Rohrer, a former Pennsylvania legislator from Berks County who is president of the socially conservative group American Pastors Network, said that Moore's stand in Alabama raised a crucial issue of the balance between federal and state power that goes beyond marriage.

"This touches a lot of nerves across a broad spectrum of people, not just the socially conservative," Rohrer said, including gun-rights activists and those opposed to President Obama's executive order allowing some undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States.

Those concerns aside, the same-sex marriage issue is a politically treacherous one for the GOP, some strategists in the party believe.

A Pew Research Center analysis from September found that 52 percent of Americans support allowing gay men and lesbians to marry legally, with 40 percent opposed - nearly the reverse from 2001, when 57 percent were opposed.

Among Democrats, 64 percent approved of same-sex marriage in 2014, but only 30 percent of Republicans did.

But Pew did a deeper look at GOP attitudes on the topic and found a sharp generational divide: 61 percent of those who identify as Republicans or lean to the party under the age of 30 favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry. By contrast, just 27 percent of Republicans older than 50 were in favor.

"The debate over same-sex marriage is over - that ship has sailed and it's a speedboat," said Michael Hudome, a Washington-based Republican media consultant who produced ads for John McCain's 2008 campaign.

If Republicans are too identified with opposition to same-sex marriage, the issue will hurt in the general election, Hudome said. It would be seen by many voters as "akin to advocating discrimination." 215-854-2718