Why many 2016 GOP hopefuls are mum on Supreme Court gay marriage moves

Some possible Republican presidential candidates – Rick Santorum and Marco Rubio – chided the Supreme Court for its actions Wednesday on gay marriage cases. But many others remained quiet. Why is that?

Scott Eisen/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seen earlier this month, and other possible GOP presidential contenders have been silent thus far on the Supreme Court's DOMA ruling.

Some high-profile Republicans have been drawn to the cause of marriage equality, perhaps most notably attorney Ted Olson, who represented the plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 case in California; US Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, whose son is gay; and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who recently announced after years in politics that he is gay.

But in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s landmark actions Wednesday overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and dismissing an appeal brought by Prop. 8 defenders, many likely Republican presidential hopefuls are steering clear of commenting on either outcome. In what’s expected to be a crowded field of 2016 contenders, who first must woo their party's conservative base to emerge as the eventual GOP nominee, the collection of possible candidates has been largely mum.

Why? Because angry or hand-wringing remarks they make now could come back to bite them in a general election campaign, should they make it that far. And with the Republican Party struggling to court swing voters – young people and minorities, in particular – potential candidates might risk alienating potential backers.

The next presidential contest will be a test for a GOP facing a demographic challenge. Already, the immigration reform debate has created a fault line between those Republicans in favor and those against. Gay marriage is poised to do the same – not just among the candidates, but within the party, too.

So it is that the Twitter feeds of a string of possible contenders – Govs. Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Nikki Haley, Sen. Ted Cruz, and former Gov. Jeb Bush, among them – were notably devoid this afternoon of any weigh-in on DOMA or Prop. 8.

Call it cyber silence.

“My mother once told me, If you don't have anything to say nice, don't say anything at all. Maybe that's the tack they are taking,” says Republican strategist John Feehery.

“Seriously, we live in uncertain times when it comes to public perceptions of how the gay marriage thing will play out,” he adds. “For many possible presidential candidates, appearing too strident on this issue could hurt with fundraising and with appealing to young voters, so for them it makes sense to stay quiet.”

Democrats, on the other hand, were jubilant, and not shy about it.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, widely believed to be considering a presidential run, tweeted: “I applaud #SCOTUS for striking down #DOMA & affirming that the way forward is always found through equal rights & respect for human dignity”

A potential Democratic rival, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, also registered his support: “From #Stonewall 44 yrs ago this wk, to passage of #marriageequality, to today’s decision to overturn #DOMA (orig. from NY case) #NYS leading”

Governor Cuomo took the opportunity to remind the public that his state, under his leadership, has been a leader on the issue. “Today’s decisions by the Court are groundbreaking civil rights victories for the LGBT community and a major step forward in our efforts to achieve full marriage equality in this nation,” he said in a statement. “Two years ago, New York became the largest state to enact marriage equality, and since then we have seen a growing recognition across the country that all citizens deserve equal rights under the law, regardless of sexual orientation.”

Maryland, it’s worth noting, approved a same-sex marriage law last year via ballot initiative; Governor O’Malley was a key proponent.

Vice President Joe Biden, another possible 2016 hopeful, voted for DOMA in the 1990s, but has since given his full support for marriage equality. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s husband signed DOMA in 1996 when he was president, but she endorsed same-sex marriage this year after leaving her diplomatic post.

The Clintons issued a joint statement Wednesday: “By overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the court recognized that discrimination towards any group holds us all back in our efforts to form a more perfect union,” they said. “We are also encouraged that marriage equality may soon return to California. We applaud the hard work of the advocates who have fought so relentlessly for this day, and congratulate Edie Windsor [the DOMA case plaintiff] on her historic victory.” 

So who are those Republicans unafraid to chime in?

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida suggests that the Supreme Court made “a serious mistake” and “should not have second guessed the will of the American people acting through their elected representatives without firm constitutional justifications.”

“The sweeping language of today’s majority opinion is more troubling than the ruling itself as it points to further interference by the Court in the years to come,” Senator Rubio said in a statement. “I recognize that the definition of marriage and the legal status of same-sex relationships is a deeply personal and emotional issue for Americans of a variety of viewpoints. These types of disagreements should be settled through the democratic process, as the Founders intended, not through litigation and court pronouncements.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who ran for president in 2012 and has not ruled out another bid, also chided the high court.

“I’m incredibly disappointed that the Supreme Court would continue a pattern of stepping in and making decisions that were very clearly left for the public and the Congress to make,” Mr. Santorum said during a Fox News interview.

And Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, affirmed his belief that “traditional” marriage is between a man and a woman, Politico reports. He said as well that the Supreme Court ruling on Proposition 8 effectively tosses the matter back to the states.

“They’re trying to say nothing, is what they’re trying to say, but in doing that the other side of the coin is there are 34 states that have decided in favor of traditional marriage,” Senator Paul said on Glenn Beck’s radio show. “Those are affirmed now. … The good side to this ruling is they have affirmed to states that this is a state issue and states can decide.”

It is Rubio’s lengthy statement, however, that inherently acknowledges the battle ahead for Republicans, like him, who – if they decide to seek the nation’s highest office – must convince voters that their opposition to same-sex marriage doesn’t reflect an underlying bias against gays and lesbians. His comments suggest that it will be difficult to plead for an expanded Republican tent while denying rights demanded by a large subset of Americans.

“My hope is that those of us who believe in the sanctity and uniqueness of traditional marriage will continue to argue for its protection in a way that is respectful to the millions of American sons and daughters who are gay,” Rubio said. “It is also my hope that those who argue for the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex marriage will refrain from assailing the millions of Americans who disagree with them as bigots.”

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