Former Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife on Monday jumped into a bitter public clash between their two daughters on the subject of gay marriage, an anguished personal fight that reflects the fierce ongoing debate within the Republican Party over the legalization of same-sex marriage.
The Cheneys defended their eldest daughter, Liz, a U.S. Senate candidate in Wyoming, who on Sunday reaffirmed her opposition to same-sex marriage, and expressed dismay that their younger daughter, Mary Cheney, and her longtime partner Heather Poe publicly expressed their offense to her stance.
“This is an issue we have dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public,” they said in a statement. “Since it has, one thing should be clear. Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage.”
The public eruption of the internal Cheney family drama gave airing to the broader struggle within the GOP about how to handle gay marriage at a time when such unions are rapidly gaining legal status and widespread public acceptance.
Many prominent voices within the party – including top strategists and political donors – now back the effort to legalize gay marriage. Public surveys show GOP attitudes about same-sex marriage are changing, albeit at a much slower pace than the overall population. In a March Post-ABC poll, 34 percent of Republicans said they believe it should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry, up from 22 percent in 2009.
Poe wrote on Facebook this weekend: "Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 -- she didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her now say she doesn't support our right to marry is offensive to say the least."
Mary Cheney shared the message on her own Facebook page, adding, “Liz — this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree — you’re just wrong — and on the wrong side of history.”
The Facebook posts came in reaction to Liz Cheney's appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” where she reiterated her opposition to same-sex marriage, telling host Chris Wallace that she disagrees with Mary, who married Poe last year.
“I love Mary very much. I love her family very much. This is just an issue on which we disagree,” Liz Cheney said.
Dick and Lynne Cheney said in the statement that Liz Cheney has always been respectful while also opposing gay marriage. Without naming Poe, they suggest she might be drawing too many conclusions about Liz Cheney's political positions based on her cordiality toward her and Mary Cheney.
"She has also always treated her sister and her sister's family with love and respect, exactly as she should have done," the Cheneys said. "Compassion is called for, even when there is disagreement about such a fundamental matter, and Liz's many kindnesses shouldn't be used to distort her position."
Liz Cheney’s views on various issues have come under an increasingly bright spotlight since July when she declared her campaign to unseat Sen. Mike Enzi (R). The primary campaign has turned contentious, with Dick Cheney lobbing barbs at Enzi, and Liz Cheney confronting charges from critics that she is a carpetbagger who moved back to Wyoming for political purposes.
Liz Cheney’s position on marriage also has become an issue in the campaign. A conservative super PAC released an ad in October casting her as insufficiently conservative on the matter. The commercial pointed to her opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and her support for a State Department decision to extend benefits to same-sex couples.
While Liz Cheney has shown signs that she can compete with Enzi (she outraised him during the last fundraising quarter), she still faces a very tall task against the popular incumbent. Recent polling commissioned by the American Principles Fund, the group that ran the ad slamming Liz Cheney on marriage, showed Enzi holding a 52-point lead.
The primary election will be held in August 2014. The winner is expected to coast to victory in the general election, because of Wyoming’s heavily conservative tilt.
When Liz Cheney was asked about same-sex marriage on MSNBC four years ago, she had a different perspective. She said she would oppose a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in every state, as her dad's boss, President George W. Bush, had suggested in 2004.
"My family's been very clear about this: We think freedom means freedom for everybody," she said in the interview, but she added that she thought it was an issue that citizens in each state should be able to decide for themselves.
Pressed, she said she supported benefits for gay spouses of State Department employees. "It's wrong to discriminate in those relationships based on somebody's sexual preference," she said.
The current dust-up between Liz and Mary Cheney is not the first time someone in their family has attracted attention for remarks on gay marriage. Dick Cheney also drew scrutiny when he endorsed state-sanctioned gay marriage in 2009, saying in remarks at the National Press Club in Washington that “people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish, any kind of arrangement they wish.”
As vice president in 2004, he appeared to put some daylight between himself and Bush, who supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Matea Gold contributed to this report.
Updated at 5:24 p.m.