Politics

June 28, 2013

Gay marriage: For Republicans, a delicate balance

The party leadership must find a way to reach out to centrist voters without alienating conservatives.

By CHARLES BABINGTON The Associated Press

The dramatic Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage is forcing Republican leaders to cope, in bright daylight, with something they'd rather handle discreetly: the careful balance between placating their conservative base and reaching out to centrist voters crucial in presidential elections.

click image to enlarge

An opponent of gay marriage prays outside a Republican conference room at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., in 2011. The issue of same-sex marriage poses major challenges for Republican leaders in Washington and around the nation.

The Associated Press

GAY WEDDINGS LIKELY TO GENERATE MILLIONS

On the day the Supreme Court handed two major victories to the gay rights movement, Rossmoor Pastries in Signal Hill, Calif., put the finishing touches on a wedding cake celebrating gay marriage.

The cake -- creamy white topped with two same-sex couples kissing -- is the first of many that owner Charles Feder anticipates baking as gay weddings resume in the Golden State. He expects gay wedding celebrations, along with future anniversary fetes and baby showers, to be a boon to his business.

"When gay marriage was allowed previously in California, we did three or four (cakes) a week, about 20 a month," Feder said. "I am expecting that to come back with a fury."

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and denied an appeal to a ruling that struck down Proposition 8, which in 2008 banned gay marriages in California. Economists say those twin decisions could be a boon to both state and federal coffers, and grant new financial benefits to married gay couples.

The federal government could gain $500 million to $700 million annually in taxes with the influx of newly recognized marriages, the Congressional Budget Office said. In California alone, the state's budget could see a gain of $40 million in wedding-related tax revenue in the next three years, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California-Los Angeles Law.

The wedding industry -- including travel agencies planning honeymoons and dress shops selling bridal gowns -- is poised to hear the "ka-ching" of cash registers as gay marriages resume. In the next three years, 37,000 same-sex couples are expected to wed in California and could generate $492 million in revenue for the state's business, according to the Williams Institute.

"For the economy as a whole, there should be a boost," said M.V. Lee Badgett of the Williams Institute.

-- Los Angeles Times

Top GOP leaders showed notable restraint this week, while conservative activists fulminated against the court's decision, which requires the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage.

It's a delicate political dance that establishment Republicans perform whenever divisive social issues gain new prominence. Republicans are unified and confident in their anti-tax, small-government principles. But nonfinancial issues cause more problems.

Republicans are struggling to keep pace with rapidly increasing public acceptance of gay rights. They're also embroiled in intraparty debates over illegal immigration. And a third sensitive issue charged back into prominence this month when House Republicans voted to sharply restrict abortion rights. A similar bill triggered a midnight standoff this week in the Texas Legislature.

All these issues pose major challenges to Republican leaders in Washington if not elsewhere. Conservative activists, who form the party's backbone, care passionately about these matters, and they will give Republican candidates only so much leeway before rebelling. Many House Republicans, in particular, cater to such voters, hoping to avoid a GOP primary challenge from the right.

But up-for-grabs centrist voters hold more moderate views. Their drift towards Democrats in recent years is a key reason why Republicans lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

The high court's rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act already is stirring new debates over gay rights in the states, with unpredictable effects on state and federal elections. Thirty-seven states still bar same-sex marriage, including presidential battlegrounds Ohio, Florida and Virginia. If activists try to legalize gay marriage in these states, it might fire up conservatives and help GOP candidates in next year's midterm elections. But it also might drive a further wedge between Republican presidential hopefuls and unaligned voters in 2016 and beyond.

"In less than a decade, opposition to gay marriage has transformed from a marginal political winner for Republicans to a liability with swing voters," said GOP consultant John Ullyot.

National Republican leaders carefully calibrated their responses this week to the Supreme Court's ruling. House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement: "While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances." He said he hopes states "will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell issued no statement at all. His aides, when asked, said McConnell "supports traditional marriage."

The Democratic National Committee chortled that "some Republican leaders are conspicuously missing in action."

The GOP's most conservative lawmakers, meanwhile, blasted away.

"Marriage was debased today," said Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana said it was "a sad day when the same court that upheld Obamacare decides to reverse course on thousands of years of tradition and a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress."

Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas vowed to introduce a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "These unelected judges have allowed the desires of adults to trump the needs of children," he said.

Huelskamp, who has feuded with Boehner, dismissed what he called the Republican "establishment class in Washington."

"You have consultant after consultant who suggested that Republicans change their positions and abdicate their principles," he said. "There's always the argument, that, 'Boy, if we were more like Democrats, we'd win elections.' Ask John McCain how that worked out."

McCain, who lost to President Obama in 2008, was generally seen as a moderate -- or at least unorthodox -- Republican.

After Mitt Romney's loss to Obama last fall, establishment Republicans underwent weeks of soul-searching. A party-commissioned report said Republicans must embrace "comprehensive immigration reform" to improve their damaged relationship with Hispanic voters. That's generally interpreted as including a pathway to citizenship for millions living here illegally.

Many House Republicans reject the advice.

"The biggest mistake we can make as a party is to pander to the Hispanic community," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. The top priority is to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, adding: "the American people are with the Republicans on this."

Huelskamp agreed. "How do you reach out to Latinos?" he said. "On marriage and family and life issues, that is the biggest attraction they have to the party now."

Such discussions unsettle Republican presidential campaign strategists. Blatantly catering to centrist voters in 2016 could antagonize loyal conservatives who have funded and supported the party for years. But standing pat on immigration, gay marriage and other issues could perpetuate, or worsen, the political dynamics that lifted Obama to consecutive wins.

Even some Democrats sympathize. The GOP's hard-right base "is more demanding and more important" than was the Democrats' liberal base in the early 1990s, said Al From, an architect of Bill Clinton's successful bid to nudge his party toward the center two decades ago.

Elected Republican leaders' virtual silence over Wednesday's gay marriage ruling suggested they'd prefer to de-emphasize the matter as next year's midterm elections approach. Their most conservative colleagues won't play along.

"The court got it wrong," said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. "The debate over marriage will continue, with the states leading the way."

 

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