Same-sex marriage debate poses problems for Republicans

A proposal to protect same-sex marriages through federal law is turning into a political liability for Senate Republicans who would rather talk about inflation and gas prices than a hot-button social issue that could provoke a backlash from their party’s base.

Making matters worse for Senate Republicans, a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and require states to recognize same-sex marriages passed the House with 47 GOP votes, giving it strong bipartisan momentum.

It’s a tough vote for many Senate Republicans because while a recent Gallup poll shows broad public support for recognizing same-sex marriage, there’s strong support among social conservatives for defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman.

If the issue comes to the Senate floor, Senate Republicans will have to decide whether to risk alienating moderate voters or picking a fight with their own base.

Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican incumbent, announced Thursday that he would vote for the House-passed bill.

Johnson accused Democrats of playing politics but told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “should it come before the Senate, I see no reason to oppose it.”

Johnson faces a tough race in a state that President Biden narrowly won the 2020 election.

His home-state colleague, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), is also the lead sponsor of the Senate bill to protect same-sex marriage.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Gary Peters (Mich.) predicted that Republicans would pay a political price in the midterms if they block legislation to protect same-sex and interracial marriages.

“Clearly a large majority of Americans believe this is where we should be,” he said, warning that if Republicans derail the Respect for Marriage Act, it “adds to the narrative” that they are allied with the conservative Supreme Court.

“We’ve got Republicans that are taking reproductive freedom rights from women, they’re taking rights away from other individuals, and so that’s not going to bode well come election time,” he said, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which struck down abortion rights.

Peters said fear and anger over losing abortion and other rights will motivate young voters in November.

“When they see Republicans taking rights away, when you think about marriage rights for people, it’s a huge issue for young people,” he said. “They believe it’s a fundamental human right that should be protected.”

Gallup’s annual values and beliefs poll, conducted in May, showed that 71 percent of Americans say they support legal same-sex marriage.

Other potential “yes” votes in the Senate GOP caucus are avoiding the issue.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) vented his frustration over the issue Thursday when asked whether he would consider voting for the House bill, which would also offer federal protection to interracial marriage.

“Isn’t it amazing how they totally tossed that out there to distract you guys? You’re not talking about inflation, the crime, the border or the chips [bill],” Cassidy said, accusing Democrats of trying to shift attention away from the economy and other issues.

“It is such a ploy to distract the press from the issues before us. I refuse to answer the question,” he said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), another potential Republican “yes” vote, said Thursday she still hasn’t reached a decision.

“I’ve thought about it but I haven’t made any decision,” she said.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Mike Rounds (S.D.) and Todd Young (Ind.), are viewed as potential GOP supporters of the bill and won’t yet say how they will vote.

Johnson’s statement that he will vote for the bill, however, puts pressure on his GOP colleagues to do the same. He is one of the most conservative and pro-Trump members of the Senate GOP conference.

Romney is under pressure to vote for the legislation after all four Republican members of Utah’s House delegation — Reps. Blake Moore, Chris Stewart, John Curtis and Burgess Owens — voted yes on Tuesday.

Romney, however, told The Hill: “I’ll make my own decision.”

Vin Weber, a Republican strategist, said Senate Republicans are lagging national sentiment on same-sex marriage and predicted there won’t be serious repercussions if they vote to protect it.

“It is a less difficult issue than they think it is but I understand it’s a difficult issue because there’s a portion of the Republican base that is strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. In my view, same-sex marriage is an accepted part of American life and it’s not going to be changed,” he said.

“But there are people who remain opposed mainly out of religious conviction and they have voices in the Republican Party,” he added. “My own feeling is that Republicans are over-responding to that voice.”

Weber said public views of gay and lesbian rights and same-sex marriage have “transformed radically” across the nation since Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

That bill defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman and allowed states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Then-President Clinton signed it into law after the Senate and House passed it with overwhelming majorities.

Weber noted that former President Obama did not support same-sex marriage when elected in 2008 and only announced his support in 2012.

“The country has changed on it and unlike abortion there’s no ongoing political movement at the grassroots in opposition to same-sex marriage as there was for 50 years in opposition to abortion on-demand,” he said.”

Polls show support for same-sex marriage among Republicans is significantly lower than among Democrats and independents.

Gallup’s poll showed only 40 percent of weekly churchgoers support legal recognition of same-sex marriage, while 58 percent oppose the idea.

And people who attend church on a regular basis are more likely to vote for Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center.

Republican strategists as recently as 2004 saw opposition to same-sex marriage as a winning political issue.

GOP strategists say that ballot initiatives in 11 states codifying marriage as the union of a man and woman helped drive Republican turnout in the 2004 election.

One such state constitutional amendment may have made the difference in Ohio, which President George W. Bush carried by a slim margin over then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

“Those were wildly popular and some credited them with helping George W. Bush get reelected. It was something that was very popular at the time,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.

Darling said Gallup’s poll showing broad national support for same-sex marriage may not capture how strongly many Republican voters feel about same-sex marriage.

“I think most Republicans are looking behind the poll numbers and thinking that it’s not as popular as the polls indicate,” he said.

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