Battles erupting across the country over gay rights and other social issues have put Republican candidates in a pinch, deepening fissures between the business interests and social conservatives whose support they depend on, and forcing them to go on the defensive nationally amid changing cultural winds.
In the past month, three states have passed laws intended to protect rights of those who oppose same-sex marriage, and half a dozen have enacted new abortion restrictions. And in Tennessee this week, the legislature passed a law making the Bible the official state book.
The cultural fights already led PayPal to cancel plans to expand its operation in North Carolina, which last month banned anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and mandated that transgender people in government buildings and public schools use bathrooms that match the sex indicated on their birth certificates.
In a hint of the discomfort inherent in this issue for the Republicans, the GOP presidential hopefuls have been silent on the North Carolina legislation as well as a measure signed into law this week in Mississippi that allows church-affiliated groups and private businesses to decline providing services if doing so would violate their religious beliefs.
The Democratic candidates, meanwhile, have been strong in their condemnation. “Refusing to serve LGBT people because of who they are is discrimination. End of story,” Hillary Clinton’s campaign tweeted.
“We should be working to end discrimination in all forms,” Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign said on Twitter after passage of the Mississippi law. “This law is a deplorable step in the wrong direction.”
The backlash in red-state legislatures has been building since a landmark Supreme Court decision in June gave same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry. The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, said it has tracked nearly 200 bills deemed anti-LGBT introduced in nearly three dozen states this year.
Conservative support is not unanimous: Two Republican governors have vetoed such bills, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said Thursday that her state does not need a law that dictates bathroom use by certificate, after a legislator introduced a bill similar to North Carolina’s.
“We’re not hearing of anybody’s religious liberties that are being violated, and we’re again not hearing any citizens that feel like they’re being violated in terms of freedoms,” said Haley, who has been touted as a possible vice-presidential candidate.
The measures have taken various forms, including an effort to ban transgender students from joining the sports teams that match their gender identity as well as protections for religious business owners who think it would violate their faith to provide services for a same-sex wedding.
Evangelical Christians, a critical voting bloc for Republican candidates at every level, say the bills do not discriminate against gays but rather protect privacy and shield religious organizations and individuals from being forced to violate their faith. Evangelical leaders argue that concerns about religious liberties will drive voters to the polls this fall.
“In 2016, politicians of both parties won’t be able to avoid taking a stand on religious freedom, and make no mistake, people of faith will take note and respond with their voices and votes,” said Tim Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group that seeks to politically mobilize conservative Christians.
But the outcry from national corporations under pressure from consumers to speak out against anti-LGBT laws, as well as local chambers of commerce that worry about the economic impact if a state gains the reputation of being backward and bigoted, have drowned out those voices.
Similar corporate opposition is building in Mississippi, which this week enacted a law allowing businesses to refuse service to gay or transgender people if it clashes with their religious beliefs.
The debate over LGBT rights vs. religious liberties is already playing out politically in gubernatorial campaigns. Although North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision to sign the controversial bill has brought a hailstorm of criticism from companies and national groups, it is expected to boost the Republican’s stock among social conservatives, whose support will be critical this fall if he is to win reelection.
Republican governors not up for reelection this year have been more circumspect about bills labeled anti-LGBT, with the governors of South Dakota and Georgia vetoing controversial measures.
Some evangelical leaders have called for retribution against Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
“Nathan Deal betrayed conservative Christians,” said David Lane, who leads the group American Renewal Project.
Lane said evangelicals should begin an effort to impeach Deal: “That will send a signal loud and clear that we’re not going to take this anymore.”
Democrats see in these controversies an opening to appear more pro-business — a posture that Republicans have historically assumed.
In Missouri, where a bill to put a religious-freedom measure on the ballot passed despite a 40-hour filibuster by Democrats in the state Senate, the Democrat running to succeed term-limited Gov. Jay Nixon (D) has sided with the business community to oppose the measure. At least two of the four Republicans seeking the nomination, meanwhile, have spoken out in support.
And in Montana, the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee has declined to say whether he would sign a North Carolina-style bill. By contrast, the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Steve Bullock, wrote a letter Wednesday along with Sen. Jon Tester (D) inviting PayPal to resume its expansion plans in his state, which they said has “an inclusive business environment.”
The focus comes amid a state legislative season that has experienced a flurry of measures on social issues.
Abortion foes have pushed about 300 bills this year aimed at restricting the procedure, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of the bills were prompted by the release last year of a series of undercover videos claiming to show that Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organization and abortion provider, mishandles fetal tissue, a charge the group has denied.
“It used to be the common wisdom that election years were lighter years in terms of the amount of [abortion-related] bills that were introduced,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the ACLU’s Center for Liberty. “Since 2012, there has been no let-up, and we are absolutely not seeing any let-up this year. In fact, we are seeing a storm.”
The broadest abortion bill recently passed in Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence (R) is in a close reelection battle against a Democratic opponent he only narrowly defeated four years ago. Among its more controversial provisions is a ban on abortion if the procedure is sought because of a diagnosis of a disability in the fetus such as Down syndrome.
Pence has been trying to shore up his credibility among socially conservative voters since last spring, when an outcry similar to what is happening in North Carolina forced him to backtrack on a religious-liberties bill he signed. His popularity plummeted after the fracas, with his approval rating dropping from 62 percent to 47 percent in October, according to a Hoosier survey.
The Tennessee legislature is considering a bill that would require public school students to use the restroom that matches the sex indicated on their birth certificates. Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who is not up for reelection this year, has expressed disapproval of the measure.
But a different kind of bill has drawn fire in Tennessee this week — one that would declare the Bible the state book.
The measure sparked controversy, not only out of concerns from Democrats that it would violate the separation of church and state but also from Republicans who think it demeans the holy book, putting it in the same category as the Eastern box turtle as the state reptile and milk as the state beverage.
Both Haslam and the attorney general have raised questions about the constitutionality of the legislation. Haslam has not said whether he will sign the bill.
Scott Clement, Amber Phillips and Mark Berman contributed to this report.