Question: What do these people have in common? A person who’s openly gay, someone who’s urged the GOP to adopt a pro-gay agenda, a man who’s signed a Supreme Court brief supporting marriage equality in California, a woman who encouraged her pro-gay pastor to preach his convictions — and someone who’s been dubbed an “exporter of hate” for his work to enshrine anti-gay language in constitutions abroad.
Answer: They all work for the former Florida governor and likely GOP presidential contender, Jeb Bush.
Late Friday, prominent evangelical attorney Jordan Sekulow announced that he had signed on as senior adviser to Bush’s Right to Rise political action committee. Sekulow, the 32-year-old executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), is notorious within LGBT advocacy circles for his support of anti-gay legislation abroad, particularly in Africa, where he has worked to keep homosexuality a criminal offense.
The timing of Sekulow’s hire is unusual, given that Buzzfeed’s Mckay Coppins recently dubbed Bush “2016’s Gay-Friendly Republican” for his seemingly softened stance on same-sex marriage and his growing team of gay-friendly operatives. But it serves as yet another reminder of the difficult position in which Republican presidential hopefuls now find themselves — not only do they have to win over the GOP’s evangelical base to secure the nomination, they have to do so in a way that doesn’t completely alienate the general electorate, which is growing ever-more diverse and supportive of gay rights.
Almost six in 10 Americans say they favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, the highest level of support ever recorded in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Yet while support among Republicans has increased 13% since 2013, most GOP primary voters — 53% — still oppose same-sex marriage.
That split leaves Republican presidential contenders having to perform a kind of rhetorical balancing act that many have struggled so far to perfect. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, recently made headlines when he said that expecting Christians to accept same-sex marriage was “like asking someone who’s Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli.” Renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson, another 2016 hopeful, was forced to apologize after he called homosexuality a choice — a theory proven, he said, by the fact that “a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight, and when they come out, they’re gay.”
Even Bush, whose whole adult life has played out in the political arena by virtue of his family, stumbled early on this year when he was questioned on the golf course about the arrival of marriage equality in his home state of Florida.
“The people of the state decided. But it’s been overturned by the courts, I guess,” Bush told the Miami Herald in a kind of halfhearted affirmation of his earlier opposition to marriage equality. The former governor later released a more polished and politically savvy statement on the matter.
“We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law. 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.”
That statement contained some of the most sympathetic language Bush had ever used in reference to LGBT rights, signaling to advocates that perhaps he had evolved from the governor who in 2004 supported his older brother, former President George W. Bush, in a push to create a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Additionally, as Coppins noted, Bush continued to surround himself with high-level operatives who were either gay-friendly or openly gay themselves.
David Kochel, who is expected to run Bush’s national campaign, spent the post-2012 election period calling on Republicans to drop the culture wars; Tim Miller, who was hired to do opposition research and communications, is a prominent gay Republican; Sally Bradshaw, a longtime adviser to Bush, once urged her former Presbyterian pastor to voice his support for same-sex marriage, even as some conservatives chose to leave the church; and Mike Murphy, who has advised Bush for decades, signed onto a 2013 brief calling on the Supreme Court to overturn California’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage, known Proposition 8.
And then there’s Sekulow. He and his father, Jay Sekulow, a longtime backer and friend of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, opened ACLJ-affiliated offices in Africa for the purposes of lobbying politicians to “take the Christian’s views into consideration as they draft legislation and policies,” according to their website. The group tried and failed to defeat a draft version of the Kenyan constitution, which they argued was too lenient toward the LGBT community and would allow “abortion on demand.” (Abortion is illegal in Kenya except for in limited circumstances, such as when the health of the mother is at risk.) In Zimbabwe, one of the most dangerous countries for LGBT people, Sekulow’s group worked to keep homosexuality a criminal offense.
Despite this history, however, the people who cheered Bush’s apparent shift to the center on gay rights said their perceptions of his candidacy hadn’t changed with Sekulow’s hire. Adding someone to the team who can appeal to the evangelical wing of the party, they explained, is a necessary and smart strategy for an establishment candidate like Bush approaching a primary election that will likely present stiff competition from the right. And while advisers are influential, they don’t have total control over a candidate’s views.
“At the end of the day, leadership comes from the top down,” Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a Republican group supporting gays and lesbians, told msnbc. “While Mr. Sekulow is certainly an adviser to Mr. Bush and some of the positions he has taken are especially concerning to me, in some ways I’m willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, unless I hear him take a turn to the fringe right in regard to the rights of gay Americans.”
David Aufhauser, a former senior Treasury official and Bush backer, agreed that hiring Sekulow doesn’t mean that Bush has to agree with everything Sekulow stands for.
“To say you welcome somebody else to the table as an adviser is not to say you adopt all of his views,” Aufauser told msnbc. “I remain confident that Bush is an embracing and tolerant man, and that the electorate will see it.”
To be clear, Bush does agree with Sekulow when it comes to their shared opposition toward same-sex marriage. A day after Coppins published his Buzzfeed report, Bush clarified his position at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. “No,” he replied in response to a question about whether his views on the matter had changed. “I believe in traditional marriage.”
But where evangelical voters are perhaps more likely to hear candidates directly connect with them on social issues is in the “religious freedom” realm, a rising movement that gay rights advocates see as the next front in the battle for equality. While supporters of religious freedom measures say they’re intended to protect the beliefs of, say, a Christian baker who does not want to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding, critics warn they could serve as a broad license to discriminate against LGBT Americans.
“I am the greatest supporter of reasonable religious exemptions,” Angelo said. “Support for religious liberty and marriage equality is not a zero-sum game. There are some Republicans who understand that, and there are other who try to cloak themselves with a supposed shield of religious liberty. But in reality, they are truly using it like a sword.”
Unlike marriage for same-sex couples, which is becoming harder and harder to oppose as the movement nears its seemingly inexorable conclusion, religious freedom represents a kind of grayer area that may be safer for conservative candidates to get behind. At an Ohio event Tuesday night, possible presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who’s also been relatively quiet lately on the marriage front, called religious freedom “the battle in America today.”
“And this is something we have not seen in our country, a direct assault on people of faith living their faith,” he said, citing a small-business owner who was fined thousands of dollars for refusing to cater same-sex couple’s wedding.
Aufhauser said he could see Sekulow’s views on this subject aligning nicely with Bush’s, though stressed he did not speak for the candidate.