Senate races

Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision not a rallying cry for Republicans

Greg Nash

The Supreme Court’s decision to let same-sex marriages hasn’t turned out to be the rallying cry for Republicans some expected it to be. 

The GOP is looking to avoid an issue the party once used to galvanize its base, with candidates in purple states appearing as reticent as the high court itself to get involved in the debate, and Republicans in red states where gay marriage used to be a top GOP wedge issue are remaining largely silent.

And while candidates in both parties weighed in on the directly affected states of Virginia and North Carolina, it was Democrats who looked to use it as a wedge issue in some purple states, with Republicans seemingly reluctant to engage.

“This was something the party largely hoped to avoid talking about, and that’s why they’ve been silent,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Some of these Republicans in these purple states are finding themselves in a bind. In some cases, it could put some Democrats on their heels, but if you look at the totality of it, this is not a great situation for Republicans.”

The Supreme Court’s decision means lower court decisions that ruled gay marriage bans in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin unconstitutional will stand, legalizing same-sex marriage in those states. 

Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming are also in those jurisdictions and have to comply with the lower courts’ rulings, meaning gay marriage will likely soon be legal in those states as well. 

Virginia, North Carolina and Kansas are the only states that will be immediately affected by the Supreme Court’s move and have competitive Senate races. 

The GOP nominee in Virginia, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (R), called it a “decision with considerable impact” but made it clear on Monday that he didn’t want to focus on the issue.

“Well, I’ve always felt that this is a matter for the states to determine. I don’t believe that the federal government should set policy relative to marriage. I think the states should,” he said when asked about it by a local reporter. “And, obviously, given the court’s ruling, it is the law of the land today.” 

The Republican’s reticence stands in contrast to Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) celebration of the ruling. 

“Allowing people to marry who they love is the fundamentally right thing to do, and it strengthens our families and communities. This is a remarkable and memorable day in Virginia’s march toward equality,” Warner said in a statement.

Gillespie had backed a national amendment to ban gay marriage when he was RNC chairman during former President George W. Bush’s administration.

In North Carolina, where voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2012 banning gay marriage that passed by a 22-point margin, Senate nominee and House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) released a joint statement with GOP Senate leader Phil Berger (R) saying they hoped the Supreme Court makes “a definitive ruling” on the issue soon.

“Until then, we will vigorously defend the values of our state and the will of more than 60 percent of North Carolina voters who made it clear that marriage is between one man and one woman,” they said.

Hagan told the Charlotte Observer that she disagreed.

“I’ve made my personal opinion on this clear,” she said Monday. “I opposed Amendment One, because I don’t think we should tell people who they can love or who they can marry.”

Polls show that gay marriage remains unpopular in the state but by a shrinking margin.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who’s in a tough reelection fight in another state where the Supreme Court’s ruling will soon make same-sex marriage legal, signaled he also didn’t want to talk about it on Monday, saying his state would honor same-sex marriages and calling the debate on it in Wisconsin “over.” His Democratic opponent, businesswoman Mary Burke, slammed him for not embracing gay marriage.

In other purple states, Democrats celebrated the move, while Republicans stayed mum. Polling shows that public opinion is moving rapidly toward support of gay marriage, with a clear majority nationwide backing legalization. 

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) both released statements praising the decision. Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) didn’t weigh in, and their campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.

That doesn’t mean the issue is necessarily a winner for Democrats. Red-state Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) didn’t jump to talk about it either, nor did Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) or Georgia Senate nominee Michelle Nunn (D).

But it’s notable that Republicans aren’t going on offense on the issue, even in those more conservative, religious states.

Red-state Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Reps. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan (R) didn’t put out statements about the court’s decision to not consider several challenges to state laws banning gay marriage. Their campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Members of both parties are likely to be pushed on the issue in the coming days, with a plethora of debates on tap across the nation.

It’s also unlikely to disappear from internal GOP debates. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a likely presidential contender and National Republican Senatorial Committee vice chairman, slammed the Supreme Court’s move as “judicial activism at its worst,” and many in the Republican base still strongly oppose gay marriage.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the NRSC’s other vice chairman and also a possible presidential candidate, became the first GOP senator to embrace same-sex marriage after his son came out as gay; a few others have followed suit.  

— This post was updated Oct. 7 at 9 a.m. 

Tags Cory Gardner Gay Marriage Kay Hagan Mark Begich Mark Pryor Mark Udall Mark Warner Mary Landrieu Mitch McConnell Republican Party Rob Portman Same-sex marriage Same-sex marriage in the United States Ted Cruz Tom Cotton

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