WASHINGTON — A divide over gay marriage is emerging in the potential Republican presidential primary field, with candidates falling into one of two camps: those who want to admit defeat on a key social cause and move on, and those who want to keep fighting.
The prospects of a messy and damaging fight over an issue where public sentiment is rapidly evolving loom large, particularly in the first caucus state of Iowa.
A narrow majority of Republican voters polled in early caucus and primary states, including New Hampshire, said it was unacceptable for candidates to oppose gay marriage. That trend highlights how traditional Republican Party views on same-sex marriage are increasingly out of step with a seismic societal shift.
Some GOP analysts worry that a noisy gay marriage debate could pose a threat to the party’s eventual nominee, if it means that Republicans are unable to attract young voters.
“This was a battle in the culture war that has been lost, and there’s no turning this clock back,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant. “You’re not going to un-ring this bell.’’
Thirty-six states, including the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, have legalized gay marriage since Massachusetts became the first to do so more than a decade ago.
Nearly 72 percent of the US population now lives in a state where gay marriage is legal. The Supreme Court is expected to decide this summer whether gay marriage should be permitted nationwide.
These developments leave Republican White House aspirants in an awkward position, facing competing pressures from the party’s conservative Christian base and a broader electorate with more flexible views.
To be sure, none of the potential Republican candidates have come out in support of same-sex unions. But several, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, have softened their rhetoric, seeking to turn the focus to other issues and avoid alienating voters over a lost cause.
Bush, who once spoke against legal protections for gays and lesbians, said recently that laws striking down bans on gay marriage are not worth trying to appeal.
“I hope that we can also show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue — including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty,” he said.
Others planning to run are not ready to yield. They insist their socially conservative principles are more important than political pragmatism or public opinion, and they plan to make gay marriage a central topic in the 2016 debate.
“It’s like asking someone who’s Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli,” former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who has surged to the top of some recent national polls, recently told CNN. “We don’t want to do that — I mean, we’re not going to do that.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would leave it up to states to define marriage, and would prevent the federal government from getting involved. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former US senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania , and former Texas governor Rick Perry have also been among the most vociferous opponents of gay marriage.
‘You’re going to have to talk about it if you want to be the nominee’ of the GOP.
Socially conservative leaders in Iowa plan to pressure all Republican candidates to commit to opposing gay marriage.
“Marriage is going to be a big issue in the 2016 race,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and chief executive of The Family Leader, based in Iowa. “And I don’t believe any potential Republican nominee will become the nominee without firmly believing and committing and leading on God’s design for the family of one man and one woman marriage.”
Vander Plaats said his organization has a half-dozen events planned, at which he will push candidates to commit to fighting the rulings of federal judges.
To those who say they’ve lost the battle and courts have ruled, he says he will ask: If the courts said you had to turn in your guns, would you cave in, or would you fight?
“You’re not going to get a pass on it,” he said. “You’re going to have to talk about it. You may say, ‘I don’t want to because I want to win the general election.’ That’s nice, but you’re going to have to talk about it if you want to be the nominee.”
Even as each of the potential candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination opposes gay marriage, the GOP electorate they are courting is shifting. In a new NBC News and Marist College poll, about half of Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina say candidates who oppose gay marriage are “mostly” or “totally” unacceptable.
Some 52 percent of likely voters in New Hampshire said it is unacceptable for a candidate to oppose gay marriage. That’s close to the percentage — 56 percent — who said raising taxes on the wealthy would be unacceptable.
Moderate Republican leaders from New Hampshire don’t see it as a driving factor.
“I haven’t thought about it much at all, which I think reflects the fact that it’s not a big issue,” former US senator Judd Gregg said. “These social issues are not the issues that decide our primaries.”
The Republican National Committee, in its report of what went wrong in 2012, concluded that the party had to be more “welcoming and inclusive” on gay-rights issues.
“I think candidates ought to talk about issues that matter to the American people: That’s jobs and the economy and national security and terrorism,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi who helped craft the report. “Those are the issues that matter the most in my opinion, and I think that’s where candidates should tend to focus.”
David Kochel, a longtime Iowa-based adviser to Mitt Romney who recently became one of Jeb Bush’s top strategists, notably came out in favor of gay marriage in 2013 and signed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down bans on gay marriage.
Walker, who in 2006 supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, said in October that the issue had been decided when the Supreme Court rejected appeals from several states.
“For us, it’s over in Wisconsin,” he said. “To me, I’d rather be talking in the future now more about our jobs plan and our plan for the future of the state. I think that’s what matters to the kids. It’s not this issue.”
Governor Chris Christie, who supports civil unions but not gay marriage, said last year that the issue had been “settled” in New Jersey.
Although Democrat Hillary Clinton supports gay marriage, she has also said that it should be left up to the states to decide.
For her the issue is complicated by the fact that her husband, President Clinton, signed into law several pieces of legislation that gay-rights groups oppose, including the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits. The Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional in 2013.
“She has the same position as almost every potential Republican, and that is that marriage should be left to the states to decide,” said Gregory T. Angelo, national executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, the most prominent GOP group supporting gay rights. “For better or worse, it’s given the Republican presidential field cover on this issue.”
Still, Angelo said, he’s noticed a shift in rhetoric among the Republican presidential candidates — and nearly all of them have met with him.
“With a few outliers, you’re not seeing a strident opposition to marriage equality as you did in the 2012 cycle,” he said. “I’m encouraged by the sensitivity to the marriage issue that most true Republicans are exhibiting in the early stage. By and large, there is a consensus that marriage equality is here to stay.”