Just when they thought they were out, Kim Davis pulled them back in. Republican strategists are worried that the return of same-sex marriage as a presidential campaign piñata could hurt the party in the 2016 general election, putting it on the wrong side of a growing majority of Americans that believes gay couples should have the right to marry. National Republicans operatives hoped the issue was settled in June when the Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. But Davis upended that.
They were reluctant to admit it publicly, but in private, Republican insiders were delighted with the Supreme Court's ruling in June on marriage equality. The American mainstream had already embraced equal-marriage rights, and the longer the GOP pushed against the wave, the more the party risked getting washed away as out of touch.
The New York Times reported in late June that Republican officials saw the high court's ruling as an opportunity for the GOP to "pivot" away from a losing issue. The piece noted that some Republican strategists privately characterized the ruling as “nothing short of a gift from above.”
As Bloomberg Politics noted this morning, it's a gift some GOP presidential candidates prefer to return.
“I think the longer this lingers, the worse it is for the Republican Party and for the conservative movement,” John Feehery, a longtime Republican strategist and lobbyist, told Bloomberg. “Civil disobedience never works well for conservatives. And in this case, it smacks of bigotry.”
Ya don't say. An anti-gay clerk wants to deny marriage licenses to couples she considers morally deficient, in defiance of her oath, a Supreme Court ruling, and federal court orders. Several Republican presidential candidates have decided this clerk not only shouldn't be punished for her defiance, they've actually labeled her a hero -- one they're eager to be seen with.
Party insiders see risks with this little gambit? Imagine that.
“If you're looking to fundraise and gin up the conservative base's support, this is a good way to do it,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean added. “At the same time, for mainstream voters re-litigating the same-sex marriage debate isn't helpful because it marginalizes the Republican Party as unaccepting. ... The key here is for Republicans to not look like they're un-accepting of others who lead different lifestyles. The goal is to broaden our base.”
If that's the goal, the party is moving in the wrong direction.
Part of the problem is the competing priorities within the party. National candidates like Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal have one principal concern: getting votes. If exploiting the antics of an anti-gay clerk will help their campaigns connect with social conservatives and the religious right movement, then that's exactly what they'll do -- without much regard for the effect this has on the party's broader message.
The party itself, meanwhile, doesn't care whether Cruz and Huckabee pick up a few extra points in Iowa polling; Republican officials are concerned about the party's reputation for intolerance and antiquated social norms.
The Washington Post's Greg Sargent added this morning that the RNC's post-2012 autopsy "explicitly concluded that the party needed to broaden its demographic appeal in part by making its case to gay Americans, by demonstrating that 'we care about them too.' The autopsy added: 'we do need to make sure young people do not see the Party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view,' adding that 'for many younger voters,' issues involving gay rights 'are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.'"
Cruz, Huckabee, et al, probably recognize the party's goals. They may even agree with the wisdom behind the RNC's strategy. They just don't care, at least not right now, because they have a campaign to run and a confused clerk to exploit.
The party's "pivot" will simply have to wait, even if it hurts Republicans on a national level.