“Would you go?”
It began earlier this month as a question from Fusion television anchor Jorge Ramos, who asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) if he would attend a wedding for a gay family member or staffer. Rubio said he would and argued that he does not “necessarily have to agree with their decisions” in order to love them or participate in the ceremony.
Days later, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) told NBC News that he and his wife, Tonette, have attended a “reception” for a gay relative, but “haven’t been at a wedding.”
Rick Santorum bluntly declined to attend such an occasion. Citing his Catholic faith in an interview with talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt, the former Pennsylvania senator said attending would be a “violation” of his values.
The gay-wedding question — repeated on television and the campaign trail in recent days — has become one of the most vexing queries so far for 2016 candidates. Nearly every Republican presidential hopeful opposes same-sex marriage, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy for them to oppose going to a same-sex wedding.
If candidates say they’re unwilling to go, they risk looking uncaring or, in the minds of some voters, bigoted. But if candidates say they’re willing to go, they risk looking like hypocrites and will annoy social conservatives, who are pivotal in many Republican primaries and who want them to take a hard line on the issue.
For Republicans, who have lost the last two presidential elections, the challenge is whether they can emerge ready for a general election campaign next year without alienating the religious right or younger voters.
In the meantime, GOP presidential candidates are struggling to find balance, sending mixed signals and uneasily discussing a topic that sits at the crossroads of the party’s past moral battles and its efforts to build a coalition for the future.
Aware of the possibility for missteps, Hewitt — a California-based commentator whose program has become a must-stop for GOP stars eyeing the White House — has taken it upon himself to make his show a forum for Republicans grappling with how to thread the political needle. Hewitt says the debate should be concentrated instead on how gays are treated poorly overseas, pointing to the Islamic State terror group as one example.
“Okay, last question, and this is into the wedding wars. Every Republican is getting asked,” Hewitt said last week in an interview with former Texas governor Rick Perry. “I actually put it out there, so I’m part of the problem if it’s a gotcha question, but it grows out of my belief that we’re focused on the wrong thing.”
Perry’s responded that he “probably would” go to a wedding if invited by a gay friend or family member but also blasted Democrats and the media for trying to draw out Republicans “so everyone will talk about” their views on gay rights.
“We need to stand up and say, ‘Hey, listen, you know what? That’s an interesting question, here’s my answer, but get this thing back to talking about how do we get Americans back working again, how do we get this economy back on track,’ ” Perry said.
Past troubles are central to the tensions evident in Hewitt’s framing of the question and Perry’s terse reply. Offensive remarks on abortion and rape cost several GOP candidates in 2012, and many Republicans are wary of being dragged back into the culture wars.
Others in the presidential mix, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), are choosing to ignore the question and stick to their talking points. On the stump and in interviews, Cruz has kept his comments tethered to the law ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling on whether to make same-sex marriage a constitutional right.
When Hewitt asked Cruz on April 16 whether he’d got to a wedding for a gay friend or relative, Cruz responded, “I haven’t faced that circumstance. . . . But the legal question, I’m a constitutionalist. And under the Constitution, from the beginning of this country, marriage has been a question for the states.”
Ben Domenech, a conservative writer who publishes a widely read newsletter, wrote last week that the wedding question reminds him of “last cycle’s ‘should states have the right to ban contraception?’ questions from George Stephanopoulos.”
Domenech added that questions on gay weddings are certain to keep popping up: “It’s about trying to find a subject where the natural voter’s response is, ‘What? Don’t be ridiculous,’ but Republican candidates’ responses will be a 15-minute discourse on the finer points of Griswold v. Connecticut.”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton — who as recently as last year suggested gay marriage should be up to the states — has signaled her strong support for a constitutional right to same-sex marriages. On Tuesday, as the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a crucial same-sex marriage case, Clinton wrote in a Twitter message: “Every loving couple & family deserves to be recognized & treated equally under the law across our nation.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposes same-sex marriage, told CNN this month that “people ought to be left alone” with regard to their lifestyles. “I don’t care who you are or what you do at home or who your friends are . . . What you do in your home is your own business. That’s always been who I am,” he said.
Rubio, who has courted the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group, infused his answer on Fusion with empathy: “If it’s somebody in my life that I love and care for, of course I would. I’m not going to hurt them simply because I disagree with a choice they’ve made.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), a possible 2016 candidate who frequently calls for the GOP to open its tent to newcomers, has taken a similar line. He recently told CNN he has accepted a wedding invitation from a gay friend, though he opposes same-sex marriage. “I called him today and said, ‘Hey, just let me know what time it is,’ ” he said.
Speaking Tuesday in Puerto Rico, former Florida governor Jeb Bush said “claro que si” — Spanish for “of course” — when asked the question. It was reflective of his evolution: A strident social conservative in office, Bush has recently said Americans should respect “couples making lifetime commitments to each other” and tapped David Kochel, an advocate for same-sex marriage, to manage his likely campaign. He has said he remains opposed to gay marriage, however.
Even Cruz, perhaps the race’s most prominent firebrand, has softened his tone. He made headlines last week by attending a meet-and-greet hosted by two gay New York hoteliers in which he reportedly said he would love one of his daughters if she came out as gay, and did not mention his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Still, the pressures from the evangelical wing of the GOP remain strong, especially in Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Conservative power-brokers in the heartland state are searching not only for an opponent of same-sex marriage but a warrior for the cause.
Amid concerns from conservatives about why he was mingling with same-sex marriage supporters, Cruz introduced a pair of bills last Thursday to amend the Constitution to allow states to define marriage as between a man and a woman and to forbid courts from intervening.
Speaking in Iowa on Saturday, Cruz urged conservatives to “fall on our knees and pray” as the Supreme Court deliberates. Walker, at that same Iowa gathering, held a devotional book titled “Jesus Calling” as he spoke out in favor of marriage between one man and one woman.
Mostly unmentioned at the GOP confab: same-sex weddings. The format was controlled, the audience friendly, and the question that has bedeviled them for weeks was averted. The rest of the primary is unlikely to be as comfortable.