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GOP finds itself in a tighter spot on gay marriage after rulings


Republicans issued varying reactions to Wednesday’s historic Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage, highlighting the party’s challenge in navigating an issue that has growing public support but remains deeply unpopular within much of the GOP. 

As Democrats rushed to hail the rulings striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and dismissing a challenge to California’s ban on same-sex marriages, most Republicans expressed their continued dismay toward the idea of gays and lesbians marrying. 

“While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement following the ruling. He added that it was his “hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.” 

"While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances," said House Speaker John Boehner, seen in this June 6 file photo.

(Boehner led the House GOP in spending millions – now, unsuccessfully – on defending DOMA before the high court after President Barack Obama announce his administration would no longer defend the 1996 law in court.) 

Many Republicans stayed silent but more decried the Supreme Court’s ruling in the starkest of terms.

“Jesus wept,” former Arkansas Gov. and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee wrote on Twitter.

Conservative firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., added: “Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted.”

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., warned the ruling put “society itself … at risk.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential contender for the GOP presidential nod in 2016, expressed his concern that the proliferation of same-sex marriage would erode “traditional” marriage.

“I would tell people who are for traditional marriage: the battle is lost at the federal level; concentrate on your state,” he said on Glenn Beck’s radio show.

The dynamic spoke to the difficulty facing the GOP – which staked its identity last decade, in part, on opposing same-sex marriage – as political support seems to be mobilizing at a breakneck speed behind legalizing gay and lesbian couples’ ability to marry. In fact, it was just 2006 when former President George W. Bush pushed for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But times have changed.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., reacts to the Supreme Court's decisions on Prop 8 and DOMA Wednesday.

A post-election report commissioned by the Republican National Committee and released in March outlined the tight political spot in which many Republicans now find themselves.

“On messaging, we must change our tone — especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters. In every session with young voters, social issues were at the forefront of the discussion; many see them as the civil rights issues of our time,” the report said. “We must be a party that is welcoming and inclusive for all voters.”

But any transformation within the GOP will be difficult to execute. The RNC platform continues to endorse the idea that marriage is between a “one man and one woman.” Evangelical Christians, who strongly oppose same-sex marriage, play an important role in the Republican base, and exert an outsized influence on GOP nominating contests. That puts the party stuck between its conservative stalwarts and changing, broader public opinion, reflecting Republicans’ broader struggles on a wide variety of issues, like immigration or abortion rights.

To that end, the April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that a majority of Americans – 53 to 42 percent – now favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry; in March of 2004, Americans in the NBC/WSJ poll opposed same-sex marriage, 30 percent to 62 percent. And while a major Pew Research Center poll in May found that both Democrats and independents have moved strongly in favor of same-sex marriage over the last decade, Republicans are largely unchanged: 29 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry now, versus 22 percent in 2003.

There have been some signs of change within the GOP. Three Republican senators – Rob Portman of Ohio, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – announced their support this spring for same-sex marriage.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Celebrations around the nation as the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and declined to rule on California's Prop 8, legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

“I welcome today’s Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act because the federal government should empower households, respect the decisions of states and otherwise get out of the way,” Murkowski said in a statement.

Portman said he would have preferred to see DOMA repealed by Congress, and added: “I believe that gay couples deserve the opportunity to marry, but I believe change should come about through the democratic process in the states, through the process of citizen persuading fellow citizen that civil marriage should be allowed.”

But Republicans seem unlikely to more broadly or quickly embrace same-sex marriage anytime soon. The party’s core constituencies still involve older, whiter and more religious Americans, all of whom tend to oppose same-sex marriage. Whether that puts the party further out of step with voters who have come around to same-sex marriage is an open question. But if it does, the GOP could be looking at just another troubling trend for its political support.

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