Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during an event in Indianapolis, May 15, 2014.
A.J. Mast/The New York Times/Redux

Indiana gay marriage ruling puts Mike Pence in a tough spot

Updated

Mike Pence is in a tough spot. The Republican governor of Indiana and potential presidential contender must now decide whether to recognize gay marriages in his state. His decision , and the response to it, could be an early sign of how the GOP might try to finesse an awkward issue as 2016 approaches.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Indiana ruled that the state’s gay marriage ban was unconstitutional, the latest in a long string of unfavorable rulings against similar red state laws. Indiana’s attorney general appealed the ruling, which will now go before a federal circuit court.

In the meantime, the legal status of gay marriage in Indiana is unclear. As a result, Pence must decide whether Indiana will recognize in-state same-sex marriages and award all the attendant state benefits, like visitation rights and tax incentives, to same-sex spouses. The federal government already recognizes those marriages.

The political peril is clear. If Pence chooses to recognize same-sex marriages, he risks alienating the socially conservative Republican base and hurting his chances in the 2016 presidential primary, should he run. But an image as a culture warrior could cause big problems for Pence down the road, and distract from his persona as a small-government champion and disciplined campaigner.

Pence has taken a cautious approach so far.

“My position on this issue is very well known, but I believe in the rule of law,” he said recently. “The lower court made its decision, the court of appeals has stayed that decision, and we understand that’s created a level of confusion for some Hoosiers. We’re going to sort through that, take the advice of counsel, and make sure the state of Indiana complies with the law.” 

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Pence isn’t the only one struggling to define his stance when it comes to marriage equality. Recent polling has found that 55% of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage, including 61% of young Republicans. That means, in 2016, the GOP may need to edge away from its previous full-throated opposition to same-sex marriage if it hopes to pick up young voters and moderates. But doing so without angering the social conservatives who still make up a large part of the party’s base of voters and activists will be a tricky balancing act.

For Pence, the finessing has already begun. In February, he told msnbc’s Chuck Todd that marriage equality is a question that “should be resolved by the people and by the states.” That was a shift from his earlier stance of staunch opposition to same-sex marriage.

Indiana and Mike Pence

Indiana gay marriage ruling puts Mike Pence in a tough spot

Updated