A majority of the country supports gay marriage. Will any 2016 Republican presidential candidate?

June 27, 2013

Wednesday's rulings by the Supreme Court on California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act provide further proof of a reality most strategists have known for some time: Opposing the right of gay people to marry is, increasingly, a losing political proposition.


Might Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul be the 2016 Republican to support gay marriage?

For Democrats thinking of running for president in 2016, support of gay marriage is a sine qua non when it comes to having a realistic chance of winning the party's nomination. (That shift is somewhat remarkable if you remember that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton supported gay marriage during the 2008 presidential campaign.)

For Republicans eyeing the 2016 race, the calculus on where to come down on gay marriage is far more complicated -- and therefore far more interesting for political junkies like us.

On the one hand, the direction of public opinion is quite clearly moving in the direction of legalization of gay marriage -- particularly among young people (including young Republicans).

And yet, as the country as a whole has moved quickly to back gay marriage, Republicans -- particularly those who identify themselves as "very conservative" -- have moved far less, well, far, on the issue. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted last summer, 85 percent of "very conservative" Republicans said that gay marriage should be illegal.

Here's why that's a major problem for any Republican thinking of running for president and pondering whether to come out in support of gay marriage: Those "very conservative" voters comprise a major part of the party's base and, therefore, have an outsized influence in choosing the identity of the GOP presidential nominee.

"You cannot get through Iowa and South Carolina," said Jan van Lohuizen, a Republican pollster, when asked about the possibility of a pro-gay marriage GOP presidential candidate in 2016. "New Hampshire maybe."

Recent history would suggest van Lohuizen is right. In the Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary in 2008, underfunded former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee soared to victory on the strength of his social conservative credentials. Four years later, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a favorite of evangelicals, came out of nowhere to win the Iowa caucuses.

The only semi-major Republican candidate to support same-sex marriage in either of those two campaigns was Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who said of marriage in a 2012 debate: "I think the government should just be out of it." (Paul, while he raised a considerable amount of money and had/has a loyal following, was never considered a serious contender for the GOP nomination in 2008 or 2012.)

Paul's libertarian streak when it comes to gay marriage could well provide the philosophical blueprint for a GOP candidate who might consider coming out in support of gay marriage in the 2016 race.

Take what Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, son of Ron, said in the wake of Wednesday's gay marriage rulings by the Supreme Court. Paul praised the Court for pushing the issue back to the states and added: “As a country we can agree to disagree. As a Republican Party, that’s kind of where we are as well. The party is going to have to agree to disagree on some of these issues.”

That states' rights approach is the one that most of the GOP strategists we spoke to in the aftermath of Wednesday's Court decision advocated for when asked how a Republican candidate thinking about supporting gay marriage in the next presidential race should go about it.

"I'd imagine the predominant view of 2016ers will be to advocate for states rights and there will be a libertarian strain that argues government should be out of the marriage business altogether," said one senior Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly about political positioning on the issue. "Looking at recent elections there's not a lot of evidence marriage is an animating issue for campaigns on the right."

The presumed frontrunner in the 2016 GOP presidential field, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, released a long statement that called the Court decisions a "serious mistake," adding: "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....I believe that marriage is a unique historical institution best defined as the union between one man and one woman."

That's a heavily nuanced statement that, at the end of the day will be boiled down in a presidential campaign to Rubio opposing same sex marriage.

That pull to align oneself with a political base that still views marriage as between a man and a woman will be strong for all of the 2016 GOP candidates -- up to and including Rand Paul -- due to the history of success candidates supporting social conservative positions have had in early voting states in the past.

"To the best of my knowledge, no one who could be considered a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination today supports marriage being defined as anything other than a sacred union between a man and a woman," said Ralph Reed, a prominent social conservative strategist. "That is the current Republican party platform, and I cannot imagine a circumstance under which the platform would change."

Fixbits:

Another poll shows good news for Anthony Weiner in the New York City's mayor's race.

Dealing with conservative criticism of his immigration reform efforts “has been a real trial" for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), he says.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts's openly gay cousin says she looks forward to planning to marry her partner.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) leveled heavy criticism against a witness at a House committee hearing.

Retired energy company CEO Mark Jacobs (R) took steps toward running for the Senate in Iowa.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) plans to file a constitutional amendment to reinstate the Defense of Marriage Act.

Must-reads: 

"Court underscores political shift on same-sex marriage" -- Dan Balz Washington Post

"Texas state senator Wendy Davis filibusters her way to Democratic stardom" -- Karen Tumulty and Morgan Smith, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | June 26, 2013