Why same-sex marriage is tricky issue for Republican candidates

On Sunday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker expressed support for a constitutional amendment to protect states that ban same-sex marriage, joining other prospective GOP candidates in a stand that may prove troublesome in the road to the White House. 

Dave Kaup/Reuters
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is expected to make a bid to become a U.S. Republican presidential candidate, shows off his motorcycle driver's license in Des Moines, Iowa. Governor Walker said he would support a constitutional amendment to protect states that ban same-sex marriage.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Sunday that he was open to the idea of a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

In an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Governor Walker, a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2016, said he would support amending the constitution to protect states still opposed to same-sex marriage.

His statement, which comes as the Supreme Court prepares to rule this month on state bans on the issue, echoes those of other prospective GOP candidates, as gay marriage opposition becomes a way of appealing to the sentiments of conservative voters in the lead-up to the primary elections. But as those sentiments increasingly conflict with broader public opinion, some experts have said that bucking the trend could prove troublesome in the long run for whoever wins the 2016 Republican nomination.

“If the court decides [in favor of same-sex marriage], the only next approach ... for those who are supporters of marriage being defined as between one man and one woman is ultimately to consider pursuing a constitutional amendment,” Walker said, according to ABC.

Others in his party – such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum –  have taken similar stances. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz went so far as to introduce an amendment proposal that would give states the power to define marriage within their own borders.

“If the courts were following the Constitution, we shouldn’t need a new amendment,” Senator Cruz told radio host Jan Mickelson on Iowa’s WHO 1040. “But they are, as you put it quite rightly, ‘making it up’ right now and it’s a real danger to our liberty.”

Such statements could win over the conservative voter base, who are “yearning for Republican presidential candidates to speak openly and forcefully about the issues they care about: abortion, religious liberty, and same-sex marriage, among others,” CNN reported.

But while Republicans and Democrats alike engage in campaigns to bring base voters to their side during primary elections – Hillary Clinton, for instance, took liberal positions on issues such as immigration, climate change, and Cuba as early as December, according to The Washington Post – opposing same-sex marriage comes with a particular set of challenges.

Nationwide opinion on the issue has shifted in recent years, with nearly 60 percent of registered voters saying they are in favor of legal unions for gay and lesbian couples, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll done in April. As of February, 37 states have legalized gay marriage, whether via court decision, state legislature, or popular vote.

“For an increasing number of Americans, opposing same-sex marriage means being anti-gay,” columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in an op-ed for the Post.

In effect, a candidate who stands against same-sex marriage in order to boost his standing in the primaries could find that position problematic in the general elections, experts have said.

“The danger for Republican candidates is that in the process of showing love to the [social conservative] base, they alienate other Americans,” contributor Paul Waldman wrote, also for the Post.

Some Republican party members, recognizing that risk, have urged for neutrality on marriage equality as a critical part of any climb to the White House. Their argument, political correspondent Alex Roarty wrote for the National Journal, is blunt: “If the GOP’s 2016 presidential nominee opposes gay marriage, he or she will lose to Hillary Clinton.”

The issue is most relevant among younger voters who would lean Republican but end up voting Democratic because of the GOP's intransigence on social issues, Mr. Roarty continued.

“Even though they agree with the Republican Party on other issues, that is a deal-breaker," Tyler Deaton, senior adviser to the pro-gay-marriage American Unity Fund, told the Journal. “And that's a deal-breaker for more American voters than ever before.”

Despite that, pundits don’t see Republican candidates becoming less adamant in their opposition to same-sex marriage. Just the opposite: “I now suspect that a Supreme Court ruling striking down bans on same-sex marriage nationwide will only serve to energize the social conservative wing of the party,” Doug Mataconis, senior editor for political blog Outside the Beltway, wrote in an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor.

For instance, Scott Walker has for time tried to turn the conversation away from marriage equality when on the campaign trail, the Capital Times reported. But his recent statements, including his comments on ABC Sunday, show him returning to the firm opposition of his earlier years in office.

“How that [position] will impact the GOP’s fortunes in the 2016 elections … remains to be seen,” Mr. Mataconis wrote.

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