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Indiana gay marriage ruling puts Mike Pence in a tough spot

Gov. Mike Pence must decide whether to recognize gay marriages in Indiana. His decision could offer a clue to how the GOP will handle the issue for 2016.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during an event in Indianapolis, May 15, 2014.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during an event in Indianapolis, May 15, 2014.

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.” 

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.