Evangelicals and social conservatives are urging Republicans to make the fight against same-sex marriage an election-year priority and go after President Obama over his new-found support for the cause. So far, the GOP establishment is resisting.
Rick Santorum pushed Mitt Romney to use the issue to his advantage. “I think what you see is his is a very potent weapon if you will for Gov. Romney if he is willing to step up and take advantage of a president who is very much out of touch with the values of America,” the former presidential candidate said.
But the Republican establishment is singing a different tune, showing little interest in focusing on the issue, and instead fielding questions about it by pivoting to the economy. The result is a strategic divide over how to handle the issue of same sex marriage on the right, pitting politicians against the evangelical community as they negotiate their response to the president’s gay marriage position.
Top Republicans on Sunday continued to charge the president with political opportunism, an attack the GOP has used since Obama’s announcement, arguing that his support of same-sex marriage was a part of a strategy to divide and distract the country from more pressing issues.
“President Obama brought this issue up because he wants to — he can’t run on his record, let’s put it that way,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And so he’s trying to raise divisive issues up to solidify his base and to divide the country. And that isn’t what we should be focusing on now. We should be focusing on jobs and the economy.”
Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, from a socially conservative district in Tennessee, offered the same message during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” Should Romney take Santorum’s advice? “I think that what you’re going to see Mitt Romney do is put the focus on jobs and the economy,” Blackburn responded, before launching into a discussion of how the recession has affected women.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a contender for the vice presidential nod, also declined to wade into the substance of gay marriage and instead talked about jobs and the economy.
There’s little consensus on how Obama’s announcement will affect the election. Numerous Republicans believe the president’s new stance won’t help him in key swing states.
Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a supporter of same-sex marriage, said the president’s endorsement was likely to hurt him in almost every swing state except Colorado and maybe New Hampshire. “I give the president great credit for voting his conscience because when you net this all out it’s not a political winner,” McKinnon said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Evangelicals agree with McKinnon and dispute the implication that gay marriage is not a serious — or a winning — issue.
“I don’t think the way the Republicans on Capital Hill are addressing it is the way to do it, saying it’s a distraction,” Tony Perkins, president of the evangelical Family Research Council, said Sunday on CNN. “Defending the family, the cornerstone of civilization, is not a distraction. It should be a priority. And it should be a part of what Mitt Romney talks about.” Perkins wasn’t downplaying the importance of discussing the economy but he expressed dissatisfaction with Republicans for soft-pedaling the issue of same-sex marriage so far.
Perkins also disputed the idea that Obama was posturing politically, contradicting the main line coming from the Republican establishment. “I don’t think the president did a political calculus to do this because if he did, he needs to go back to the calculator, because it’s a bad formula,” he said, pointing to anti-gay marriage amendments in swing states, like the one just passed in North Carolina, as evidence.
Evangelical leader Gary Bauer agreed with the assessment. “I think the president this week took six or seven states he carried in 2008 and put them in play with this one ill-conceived position,” he said on CNN.
Public opinion has markedly shifted toward support for gay marriage in recent years. Polls show that a majority of independents, a key electorate for both parties in 2012, support gay marriage. A prominent Republican pollster said in a recent memo that Americans are increasingly supportive of gay marriage and warned Republicans to soften their rhetoric on the issue.
But evangelicals are clearly uneasy with that approach. For now, at least, President Obama’s announcement has brought about some discomfort among one of the GOP’s most important constituencies over their party’s reaction.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.