How the Supreme Court Could Change the Republican Debate on Gay Marriage

The party's presidential hopefuls have been slower to evolve on the issue than the American public.

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Supporters of same-sex marriage unfurl a large rainbow pride flag near the Supreme Court, April 28, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Gregory T. Angelo, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, is sensing a shift among many of the party's 2016 presidential hopefuls, who have started employing a more calculated tone when they talk about gay marriage. 

“I’m seeing more sensitivity and sympathy being used by the GOP field than I've seen in any other election,” said Angelo, whose group calls itself the largest in the U.S. for gay conservatives and their supporters.

As the Supreme Court hears arguments on Tuesday on whether to legalize gay marriage nationally, and with national polls showing American acceptance those unions at an all time high, Angelo is urging the Republican White House hopefuls to show compassion.  

"I believe that the Supreme Court has given the Republican party a tremendous gift," Angelo said. "If they heard this next year, the opinion would have been a week prior to the Republican National Convention, which would have been a nightmare."

Perhaps no GOP candidate better epitomizes the party's current dilemma on gay rights issues than Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Over the past few weeks, Rubio has staked out a variety of opinions on the issue of gay marriage, including his belief that only a "ridiculous and absurd" interpretation of the Constitution would lead to the conclusion that same-sex marriage is a right enshrined in that document. 

Florida Senator Marco Rubio addresses the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Summit on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio addresses the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Summit on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa.
Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

"There is no federal constitutional right to same sex-marriage," Rubio told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody over the weekend. "There isn’t such a right. You would have to really have a ridiculous and absurd reading of the U.S. Constitution to reach the conclusion that people have a right to marry someone of the same sex. There is no such constitutional right. Can a state decide to change their laws? Yes, but only through the political process, not through the court system and that’s what is happening now."

At the same time, however, Rubio has declared that being gay is "something people are born with," leaving many to wonder how sexual identity, if it is biologically determined, could possibly not be protected by the U.S. Constitution. 

"I also don't believe that your sexual preferences are a choice for the vast and enormous majority of people. In fact, the bottom line is, I believe that sexual preference is something people are born with," Rubio said on Face the Nation on April 19. 

Also on Bloomberg Politics: The Definitive Marco Rubio Scouting Report, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Angelo, whose group has held meetings with several of the 2016 contenders or their staffs, said the GOP field is clearly struggling with the growing national support for gay marriage. “I think that shrewd Republicans had heard the message of the 2012 election and the analysis that followed it,” he said. "There's a lot of threading the needle that you're seeing among Republicans."

That may explain why Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker feels comfortable attending a gay wedding ceremony but has given his support to the idea of passing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage should the court make the practice legal. Or why Carly Fiorina speaks out against gay marriage, but supports government benefits for same-sex couples bound by civil unions. Or why Jeb Bush continues to support traditional marriage, but says he has "little appetite to repeal marriage equality through means such as amending the U.S. Constitution." 

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Summit.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Summit.
Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Image

Despite what feels like a slower version of the evolution on gay marriage that has been witnessed by the public at large, it is hard to deny that there has been movement on the issue. Still, not everyone agrees that opposition to gay marriage could prove fatal to a GOP presidential candidate's hopes of winning the White House. 

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster whose clients include Rubio, said the Supreme Court's decision is likely to shape how voters and 2016 candidates address the issue of gay marriage, although he would not speculate on how until after the court rules. Ayres, in a book out earlier this year, said Republican presidential candidates can't be perceived as anti-gay if they want to connect with younger voters, although Ayres is talking about tone more that stance, and is not making the case that candidates must favor gay marriage.

"A great many people care about the issue," Ayres said. "That said, if you start ranking the most important issues facing the American voter, gay marriage vies with campaign finance reform and climate change as the least important voting issues."

Doug Usher, managing partner at Purple Insights, a research firm that conducts focus groups and polls for Bloomberg Politics, said the risk in opposing gay marriage isn't that it's a top voting issue for most Americans but that it plays into the impression that the party is behind the times. 

"It's a cultural symbol that is problematic for Republicans" because it can shape voters' impressions of the party as "part of the past–exclusive and potentially intolerant. It's one of those things that feeds the narrative rather than is the narrative."

Given that Rubio, 43, the youngest candidate in the prospective Republican field, has consistently portrayed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton as "a leader from yesterday," gay marriage stands out as an issue on which his 67-year-old rival would seem to have a view more in step with rapidly changing public opinion.

The standard states rights' position on gay marriage, too, has suddenly left Republicans open to criticism. When Indiana and Arkansas tried to pass restrictive religious freedom laws, a political backlash sent their GOP governors into retreat mode, revising the legislation so that it included specific anti-discrimination wording for gays and lesbians. 

Still, the Republican presidential hopefuls who attended last weekend's Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Summit played to the crowd and vowed to push back against what they saw as liberal activists. 

"The governor of Louisiana's views, my views, they're not evolving with the times," Bobby Jindal said during his speech. 

The essentialist line of thinking was repeated in various ways over the weekend. 

“Marriage as an institution existed before even government itself,” Rubio told the audience in Iowa. “The institution of marriage as between one man and one woman existed even before our laws existed.”

While the institution of marriage indeed existed before the formation of these United States, more Americans are ready to extend its definition and privileges to gay couples than at any time in history, and the trend-line is clearly not in favor of politicians who argue for sticking with the past.  

"Across the board, opinions toward gay marriage have become more positive, regardless of party, or age or race," Usher said. "Yes, it's true, Republicans are still the least supportive of gay marriage, but they've increased 10 points in 15 years. Older Americans continue to be the least supportive but they've increased by a number of points." 

—Margaret Talev contributed to this article. 

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the sixteenth paragraph should have said that gay marriage stands out as an issue on which Clinton would seem to have a view more in step with public opinion.

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