BEDFORD, N.H. — As soon as the backlash began against Governor Mike Pence and Indiana for passing a religious freedom law that many saw as discriminating against gays and lesbians, nearly every Republican White House hopeful quickly defended their GOP colleague.
This might be good politics in Iowa, where 57 percent of Republicans caucus-goers reported they were evangelical or “born-again” Christians in 2012. But what about in New Hampshire, where the same NBC exit poll found just 22 percent of Republican primary voters self-identified themselves that way?
The answer among most New Hampshire Republicans appears to be either they support gay rights or are indifferent about social issues altogether. In 2013, a Gallup poll showed residents of the Live Free or Die State are the second-least religious in the entire country.
Most of the presidential candidates appear to be taking the calculated risk that a strong stance backing the Indiana law will not hurt them in the Granite State. In a Monday radio interview, former Florida governor Jeb Bush said Pence “has done the right thing” — although he softened his support for it later in the week. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said via a spokeswoman that he agrees with religious freedom “as a matter of principle.” US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Texas governor Rick Perry, and former US senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania tweeted that they “stand with” Pence. In addition, others like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Dr. Ben Carson, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina all made statements supporting the Indiana law.
The only Republican hopeful so far to disagree with Indiana’s new law is former New York governor George Pataki, who tweeted Tuesday night that the Republican Party of Lincoln “must always stand for equal rights.”
“No private sector business should be allowed to deny service, to discriminate, on the basis of sexual orientation,” Pataki said later in a statement. “I urge Governor Pence and the Indiana Legislature to amend the bill to ensure these protections are made.”
Pataki is playing for New Hampshire, which has a vastly different history on gay marriage than Iowa, host to the first presidential caucuses on the 2016 calendar.
In 2010, after Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled gay marriage was legal, conservative activists successfully removed the three justices behind that decision. Some of the conservative activists behind their ousting remain major players in the Iowa caucuses.
New Hampshire was one of the first states to pass a gay marriage bill in 2009. When an effort to repeal that law came up, it failed because enough libertarian and moderate Republicans voted to keep the law in place.
“If a presidential candidate is pushing a religious freedom button, it might be helpful in a Republican primary, but not in the general,” said University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith. “I think it would not help to take a position an either way.”
Taking that advice might be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and US Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky. Neither Republican has released a position on the Indiana law.
“The only thing to do here is duck,” said former New Hampshire Republican National committeeman Tom Rath. “But, in general, I don’t think that anyone in New Hampshire really cares either way, consistent with the Live Free or Die attitude.”
Still, Sarah Stewart Crawford, who ran the New Hampshire primary campaigns of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, does see the issue coming up at future town hall meetings.
“I am positive that candidates will be asked about this issue by Republican primary voters,” said Crawford, saying a lot of these voters back gay rights. “It is a settled issue in New Hampshire.”
Republican Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, who is considering a run for governor next year, said New Hampshire voters will take a wait-and-see approach as the Indiana law goes through amendments.
James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.