House Speaker John Boehner spent at least $2.3 million to defend the federal law banning same-sex marriage -- a cause dear to the Republican base -- but you couldn't tell from his muted reaction when the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down.
“While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances,” Boehner said Wednesday in a statement. The day before, he didn’t respond at all to the court’s blow to the Voting Rights Act, even though the decision could protect the Republican majority in Congress for years to come.
Boehner’s cautious positioning reflects the squeeze both court rulings put on a Republican Party torn between its traditional values and a desire to modernize and expand before the 2014 and 2016 elections. Crusading against gay marriage, a timeworn Republican strategy to rally social conservatives, is out of step with polls that show increasing support for gay marriage, particularly among young voters. The court also put congressional Republicans on the spot by demanding a rewrite of the landmark law protecting minority voting rights, setting up potentially awkward battles with African-American and Hispanic leaders that would reprise the rallying cry in those communities last year over voter ID laws.
“The politics on these issues are changing, and it’s smart to be careful,” said Republican consultant John Feehery, a former adviser to House leadership. “Years ago, gay marriage was something that you were able to rile the base with and it became part of an electoral strategy, but opinion seems to be evolving pretty quickly. The Voting Rights Act is also a combustible issue, and there are risks for getting involved.”
That’s exactly why the Democratic Party is flogging both court rulings. Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Wednesday that the gay marriage ruling “shows how extreme and intolerance House Republicans really are.” Democratic gubernatorial candidates from Barbara Buono in New Jersey to Terry McAuliffe in Virginia also picked fights with their Republican opponents over the court rulings. Gov. “Chris Christie is still blocking marriage equality. He is trying to be more conservative than Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and the rest of the Tea Party,” Buono’s daughter said in a fundraising appeal. Similar requests from Democratic candidates and groups are coming rapid fire this week, calling for checks to fund historic battles for marriage equality and voting rights.
Coupled with ongoing debates over immigration and abortion, the court rulings mark a return to the culture wars that could hamstring Republican outreach to women, young voters and minorities in the wake of the 2012 election. Recent skirmishes include a House vote banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, another House vote rejecting President Obama’s policy to halt deportations of illegal immigrants brought here as children, and this week, an explosive filibuster of a bill backed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas to regulate abortion clinics. Democratic attacks portray these efforts to block immigration reform or limit abortion as proof of the GOP’s hostility toward minorities and “war on women.”
Many Republicans are eager for the national debate to return to President Obama’s spending and health care law -- which fueled historic GOP gains in 2010 -- and away from issues that pit the party against demographic tides and public opinion.
“At some point our party has got to come to grip with fact that the world is moving on and being bound by old theories and traditions is not healthy for the future of the party or their candidates,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen, who was among dozens of prominent members of his party who signed a pro-gay marriage legal brief. “If young people see the masters in Washington use the issue to gin up the conservative right, they may just roll their eyes. I think this is a good test for the Republican Party to see how it wants to be seen in the 21st century.”
Withstanding pressure from the right wing of the party will be the first trial. Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, called Wednesday for federal legislation to reinstate a same-sex marriage ban. He noted that many of the more than 30 state bans have passed with healthy margins.
“Republicans shouldn’t be trying to disassociate themselves from marriage – they should be hugging it tighter,” Reed said. “It serves to engender greater intensity and enthusiasm at the grassroots level among faith-based activists and voters. I don’t think this is a hard call for the Republican Party.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a staunch conservative and Boehner nemesis, is ready to lead the charge for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But the message from Boehner and other Republican leaders on Wednesday was clear: leave the issue to the states. “The states will now decide this issue through the democratic process,” said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice presidential nominee.
That stance marks a dramatic shift from just six years ago, when former President George W. Bush pushed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential presidential contender who recently said he opposed laws banning anti-gay workplace discrimination, urged states to pick up the issue.
“I appreciate that many Americans’ attitude towards same-sex marriage have changed in recent years,” he said in a statement. “I respect the rights of states to allow same-sex marriages, even though I disagree with them. But I also expect that the decisions made by states like Florida to define marriage as between one man and one woman will also be respected.”
The measured reaction from Rubio and other prominent Republicans contrasted with the unabashed outrage expressed by Democrats to the voting rights decision. “SCOTUS took a step backward on voting rights, on civil rights, & on justice for all,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote on Twitter. “The decision is a cue for Congress to strengthen” the law. Democrats could benefit politically from taking on the issue: some of the most closely watched Senate race in 2014 are in Southern states where African-American turnout – typically light in mid-term elections -- will be pivotal.
“The voter ID laws definitely made Republicans look bad, and if they refuse to do something on the Voting Rights Act, Democrats are going to use that to their advantage,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a non-partisan think tank.
In the Virginia governor’s race, Democratic nominee McAuliffe pounced this week on his opponent’s positions on voting rights and gay marriage. Ginning up turnout of the Democratic base is key for McAuliffe to beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli in an off-year election. "Unlike my opponent, I believe that, while we have made progress, protections are still necessary to ensure that Virginians are allowed to exercise their right to vote without the risk of disenfranchisement,” McAuliffe said in a statement.
The Voting Rights Act requires several states, mostly in the south, to get federal approval before changing electoral practices. Cuccinelli emphasized that “every person’s vote counts” but added, “I do not believe we have the institutional bigotry like we had before.” His senior advisor, Chris LaCivita warned that McAuliffe should tread carefully. “Any attempt to use it in the context that implies race or that implies not everyone would have right to vote would be viewed as over the top, insulting to Virginians and will backfire,” he said.
This week has shown, however, the Democratic impulse to hammer Republicans over minority voting rights and gay marriage, is a powerful one.