Now that Kim Davis’s arrest for refusing marriage licenses to gay couples has turned her into a martyr for the Christian right, some of the Republican presidential candidates are rallying to her cause. They are doing so in the name of “religious liberty,” though these same candidates (Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal) also had previously urged continued resistance to cultural change on gay rights, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that declared a Constitutional right to marry.

But Sahil Kapur reports this morning that GOP strategists are worried that voters will see this as another sign of the party’s overall unwillingness to evolve along with the rest of the country:

“I think the longer this lingers, the worse it is for the Republican party and for the conservative movement,” said John Feehery, a longtime Republican strategist and lobbyist. “Civil disobedience never works well for conservatives. And in this case, it smacks of bigotry.”…
“If you’re looking to fundraise and gin up the conservative base’s support, this is a good way to do it,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “At the same time, for mainstream voters re-litigating the same-sex marriage debate isn’t helpful because it marginalizes the Republican Party as un-accepting… The key here is for Republicans to not look like they’re un-accepting of others who lead different lifestyles. The goal is to broaden our base.”…
The political danger for the party, said Republican strategist Bonjean, is that “most people view this as an ‘accepting people other than yourself’ litmus test as opposed to just on the merits of same-sex marriage.”

Looking “un-accepting of others” can’t be where top party strategists had hoped the GOP would be at this point. Indeed, we know it isn’t, because the Republican National Committee’s autopsy into what went wrong in the 2012 election explicitly concluded that the party needed to broaden its demographic appeal in part by making its case to gay Americans, by demonstrating that “we care about them too.” The autopsy added: “we do need to make sure young people do not see the Party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view,” adding that “for many younger voters,” issues involving gay rights “are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.”

Obviously those candidates rallying to Davis’ cause are doing so in the name of religious liberty. But to hear the above GOP strategists tell it, Republicans can’t easily shift the debate onto that turf without appearing unwilling to evolve culturally on gay rights.

How much this will matter in the 2016 election is anybody’s guess, particularly since the GOP nominee could end up being someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who have shied away from the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric that the more socially conservative candidates have employed. But given how hard likely Dem nominee Hillary Clinton — herself a late convert to gay marriage — is now leaning into the cause of gay rights, the Clinton camp sees this as yet another area that can be used to cast the GOP as hidebound, intolerant, and unwilling to move forward with the rest of the country. Some GOP strategists apparently think it might work.

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* HILLARY TO FORCEFULLY BACK IRAN DEAL: With the Iran deal now likely to move forward, CNN reports that Hillary Clinton will “forcefully” back the deal in a speech today, while also striking a tough tone:

“I support this deal. I support it as part of a larger strategy toward Iran….It’s not enough to just say, ‘yes’ to this deal, of course it isn’t. We have to say, ‘Yes, and.’ Yes, and we will enforce it with vigor and vigilance. Yes, and we will embed it in a broader strategy to confront Iran’s bad behavior in the region.”

Her GOP rivals, by pledging to tear up the deal on Day One, have ceded the opportunity to argue that only a Republican president can be trusted to implement the deal with sufficient toughness. Donald Trump, interestingly, is the only GOP candidate making this case.

* TRUMP AND TED CRUZ TEAM UP AGAINST IRAN DEAL: Trump does oppose the deal, even if he wouldn’t tear it up. And today he will appear with Ted Cruz at a rally at the Capitol to drum up opposition to the agreement. Cruz was quite candid on the rationale:

“When Donald arrives at an event, he brings an army of TV reporters. He brings an army of cameras that show up. And Donald’s being there — he very graciously accepted — means the mainstream media will cover the event.”

Also, Donald is the GOP frontrunner, and Cruz is surely hoping to capture some of the Trump-ian energy that’s surging through the GOP primary electorate.

* GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE TALKS SENSE ON IRAN: Ohio governor and presidential candidate John Kasich, asked to respond to the vow by other GOP candidates to rip up the Iran deal on Day One, commits absolute heresy:

“Well, what does that mean? I don’t know what that means. You’re going to rip it up and then what? Then what are you going to do when you rip it up?…To just say that we’re going to walk away — we’ve got to remember that we do have allies and we want to call on them to work with us and a lot of them are signing up to this.”

Wait, what? Promises made to the GOP base right now might have actual consequences later? GOP presidential candidates aren’t supposed to admit to that kind of thing.

* SCOTT WALKER’S STRUGGLES CONTINUE: Jenna Johnson reports that Scott Walker is increasingly facing questions on the campaign trail about his viability. His response is that he will just stay “constant” through all the ups and downs. But:

Staying constant, however, has been one of his biggest challenges. On key issues of the day — from calls to end birthright citizenship to the jailing of a Kentucky county official who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses — Walker has struggled more than other candidates to clearly explain where he stands….Walker said the United States must fight the Islamic State, which he says is at the root of the crisis, but he wouldn’t take a stance beyond that.

No worries. If Unintimidated Scott Walker takes out a few more hecklers, folks will stop taking note all of this buffoonery.

* GET READY FOR A GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN: Kelsey Snell reports that John Boehner and House GOP leaders are at a loss to figure out how to avoid a government shutdown this fall. House conservatives are demanding that any government funding must also defund Planned Parenthood. Snell reports that around 30 House conservatives are in that camp, “almost enough to ensure Boehner will need votes from Democrats to avoid a shutdown.”

And of course, if Boehner does rely on Dems to keep the government open, that will further enrage conservatives. We’ll be told that he just can’t do this, because it will cost him his job, just like we were told that every other time before he caved and enlisted Dem help.
* HILLARY TEAM FRETS ABOUT EMAIL STORY: Maggie Haberman reports that the Clinton camp is researching how Clinton’s recent email press conference was seen by voters:

Last week, Mrs. Clinton’s aides showed a video of that news conference to a New Hampshire focus group of independents and Democrats…Participants said they wanted to hear more from Mrs. Clinton about the issue. The focus group also showed that the email issue was drowning out nearly everything else that Mrs. Clinton was hoping to communicate to voters.

As I’ve noted, the Clinton team sees several key moments this fall as opportunities to address lingering questions — and perhaps put them behind her — more decisively than she has so far.

* HILLARY APOLOGIES TO DONORS ABOUT EMAIL STORY: Yesterday Clinton apologized for her private server in an interview with ABC News, and Anne Gearan reports:

Late Tuesday, the campaign sent a message to supporters in Clinton’s name reiterating the apology. Donors and activists have been complaining to the campaign headquarters for weeks that the e-mail issue was being mishandled, and it largely is their concern and disappointment Clinton is trying to head off.

It isn’t as if the apology is going to “head off” further discussion of the issue in the media; it looks like the real goal is to reassure supporters.