Last October, Mitt Romney defended his Mormon faith against widely criticized attacks from a subset of conservative evangelical Christians. Now, under fire from activists and others upset at the resignation of Romney’s openly gay national security spokesperson, Team Romney is pointing to that defense as proof their candidate is willing to stand up to intolerant voices in the party.
Richard Grenell, an advocate for gay marriage rights (which Romney and much of the GOP base opposes), served only a brief stint as Romney’s national security spokesperson. He said he left the campaign in part due to public attacks from right-wing evangelicals upset over his sexuality and his position on marriage equality.
Team Romney doesn’t dispute this, and it reportedly urged Grenell to stay on board. But Romney gave no public defense of Grenell — who also faced criticism for tweets some said were misogynistic and from reporters who claimed he misled them during his tenure as the Bush administration’s U.N. delegation spokesperson. Romney’s silence has upset gay Republican groups, who believe the resignation is a capitulation to the most intolerant members of the party. They believe Romney, terrified of upsetting conservative evangelicals, is backing away from what should be a rigorous defense of a qualified staffer.
On Friday, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom pushed back on those claims in an appearance on MSNBC.
“Mitt Romney has confronted those voices of intolerance,” Fehrnstrom said. “He did it last October on stage at the Values Voters summit and denounced some of the poisonous language that is being used by some of the same people that had criticized Ric Grennel’s appointment.”
Fehrnstrom was referring to Romney’s speech at the 2011 Values Voter Summit, which preceded an address by evangelical pundit Bryan Fischer, who has a sharp critic of Mormonism. Others at the evangelical conference in 2011, most notably from Rick Perry supporter Robert Jeffress, called Mormonism “a cult.”
“Our values ennoble the citizen, and strengthen the nation. We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” Romney said at the time. “One of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line. Poisonous language does not advance our cause.”
This line had almost zero political risk for Romney. The media and other observers criticized the anti-Mormon speakers at the Values Voter Summit, and other evangelicals stood up for Romney against them on stage at the conference. For the most part, Romney’s faith is universally off-limits among the establishment and polls show only about a third of Republicans even in the evangelical-heavy South are unwilling to support a Mormon for president.
By contrast, confronting some of those same voices over LGBT rights threatens to alienate a much larger part of the GOP electorate. Polls have shown big majorities of Republicans oppose gay marriage, and conservative groups have struggled to include openly gay Republicans in big gatherings like CPAC. Romney is still trying to shore up his Republican base, and standing up for a openly gay advocate of homosexual marriage rights would make that a much steeper climb.
Romney defended Grenell’s qualifications on Fox News Friday, but didn’t say anything about attacks — including from Fischer — on Grenell’s sexuality, nor did he address any of the critics who condemned Romney for hiring him.
Romney has steered clear of the controversy from the start. Though high-level Romney campaign aides and surrogates tried to talk Grennel out of quitting, the candidate himself did not. Romney never spoke out to condemn the attacks on Grenell while they were happening. That’s what left Republican gay groups wanting more from their nominee.
There are signs that criticism is softening now after Fehrnstrom’s TV appearance today.
“Eric Fehrnsrtom’s comments were a step in the right direction,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, a co-founder of GOProud and one of the advocates who was critical of Romney after Grenell’s resignation. “The campaign should call out and stand up to bigotry whenever they see it.”