It’s been a busy week for conservative social issues: South Carolina passed a law barring almost all abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, 11 states sued the Obama administration over its transgender directives and the House is fighting over legislation affecting gays and lesbians.
Absent from the flurry of activity? Donald Trump.
Social issues continue to roil Republican politics, but they are largely missing from the presidential campaign of a candidate who shows little interest in abortion, religious liberty and other topics most important to social conservatives.
Instead, those debates are flaring in the House and on the state level, where conservatives are pressing ahead with legislation to enact sharper restrictions on abortion, roll back protections for gays, lesbians and transgender people, and declare pornography a public health crisis, among other measures. Trump, meanwhile, focuses on his controversial proposals to deport illegal immigrants, dismantle trade deals and build a massive wall on the southern border.
The differences underscore the deepening rift within the GOP over how much to focus on conservative social positions, including opposition to same-sex marriage, that are out of step with the broader American electorate.
“That just creates a dissonance between the top of the ticket and where a lot of Republicans are on the state level,” said Stuart Stevens, who helped lead Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and is opposed to Trump.
Trump has barely weighed in on many issues important to religious conservatives and has often modified his positions when he has — issuing an array of evolving remarks on abortion, transgender rights and other topics.
The dynamic could affect the presidential campaign in unpredictable ways. Will Trump move further to the right on divisive social issues to please evangelicals, making his path to victory more difficult in the general election? Or will he alienate social conservatives by taking more moderate positions — or even just by shrugging the issues off — potentially depressing turnout in November?
To Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, there is relatively little daylight between Trump and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on many social issues.
“Really, what we have now at the presidential level is two sexual revolutionary parties,” Moore said. “And that’s one of the reasons why there’s a great deal of demoralization among social conservatives right now.”
Once a declared abortion rights proponent, Trump the presidential candidate has adopted the standard GOP position of wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized the procedure across the nation. But he has struggled with the details: After saying women who undergo abortions should be punished if it is outlawed, he backed off his remarks hours later and said women who have abortions are victims.
Trump has also equivocated on transgender rights. He told NBC’s “Today” show last month that North Carolina should not have passed a law requiring transgender people to base their use of public restrooms on the gender on their birth certificates. He has said since then that such decisions should be left to the states and has declined to take a side.
Those two issues are the main fronts in the current battles over social issues. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) — who has declined to endorse Trump — signed a law this week banning most abortions after 20 weeks, making hers the 13th state with that prohibition.
In Mississippi, Republicans enacted a law that allows businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds. The Oklahoma Legislature spent its session debating bills that would criminalize abortion and provide for the policing of restrooms in schools. South Dakota passed a law requiring students to use the restrooms that correspond with the genders at birth, but Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) vetoed it.
And in Utah, Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) signed a law mandating that a woman who seeks an abortion 20 weeks or more into her pregnancy be given painkillers for the fetus. Whether fetuses can feel pain is a subject of debate by doctors.
Curt Bramble, the Republican state senator who introduced the Utah bill, said conservatives are pushing such legislation on the state level because that is where they think they can have the greatest impact — and because congressional gridlock has stalled many socially conservative bills. He is not sure it will matter much in the presidential race.
“I’m not sure this presidential election will be won or lost on simply . . . the social issues of abortion and gay marriage,” Bramble said. “I’m not certain the conservative movement in America is marching lock step within its ranks.”
Social issues exploded this week in the House, where Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) finds himself in an unwelcome fight over gay rights. A spending bill with a measure attached to it barring discrimination against LGBT federal contractors failed.
Social conservatives in the House have expressed a willingness to attach measures on hot-button issues to crucial spending bills — while the Republican leadership has tried to steer lawmakers away from such actions. Some members were upset when Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.) said a prayer on the House floor in which he implied that those who supported the contractor legislation acted against biblical teachings. A number of Republicans voted for the anti-discrimination provision.
Tyler Deaton, a senior adviser at the American Unity Fund, a conservative group that supports LGBT rights, said “the Republican Party is not monolithic” on transgender rights. He noted that some legislation seen as discriminatory toward transgender people has been vetoed or condemned by a number of Republican governors.
“I think he’s intentionally downplaying it because he knows the American electorate has moved on,” Deaton said of Trump.
But Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who sponsored fetal-pain legislation in the House last year, said he is confident that Trump will swing toward social conservatives.
“I think as Mr. Trump begins to truly examine these issues, he will recognize . . . some of the religious freedom and conscience issues that are the core of this,” Franks said.
Trump has tried to assuage religious conservatives by releasing a list of judges he would consider nominating to the Supreme Court if elected president. He also named a prominent antiabortion activist as an adviser.
But many in the conservative movement remain unsure where Trump stands.
“I’ve heard from some social conservatives who have said, ‘Why would we necessarily trust this list when so many other issues have changed back and forth?’ ” Moore said of the potential Supreme Court nominees. “I think everything is still in flux for a lot of people, and I’m not sure where it’s all going to end up.”