ANALYSIS

Will Republican presidential candidates have to embrace gay marriage to have a chance to win?

Protesters rally against the Defense of Marriage Act in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on March 27, 2013.
JONATHAN ERNST | REUTERS
Protesters rally against the Defense of Marriage Act in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on March 27, 2013.
Posted April 02, 2013, at 12:41 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he thinks it’s “inevitable” that a GOP presidential candidate will someday support gay marriage.

And Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus advised the GOP against acting like “Old Testament heretics” on the issue.

Yet neither is backing away from opposition to allowing same-sex couples the ability to wed. The line they are walking has become a familiar one for Republicans, as gay marriage has moved back onto the national radar in recent weeks. And while some party strategists are welcoming the posture, others — on both sides of the issue — are warning about its drawbacks.

“Republicans look awkward trying to straddle the gay marriage issue. During the transition from ‘against’ to ‘support’, officials don’t want to get ahead of their base or abandon a position that was so clear a short time ago,” said Republican strategist Ed Rogers, who supports same-sex marriage.

Here’s the dilemma for the GOP: Americans have increasingly been supporting same-sex marriage in recent years. But most Republicans still oppose it.

In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, 58 percent of Americans now believe it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry — a new high, and a shift from nearly a decade ago, when 55 percent said they opposed gay marriage.

Most Republicans, though, don’t think same-sex marriage should be allowed, which explains the politics of why the GOP hasn’t moved swiftly to embrace it the way Democrats have. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans oppose allowing gay couples to marry, compared to just 34 percent who support it.

There are some social conservatives who don’t see the postures adopted by Priebus and Flake in a positive light. Iowa conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who staunchly opposes gay marriage, foresees emerging problems.

“In a lot of ways, I think they are straddling the fence,” said Vander Plaats. “And the old Iowa cowboy in me tells me, if you’re straddling the fence too long, you’re going to get hurt.”

In a way, the positions expressed by Flake and Priebus reflect where their party is politically on gay marriage; most Republicans still oppose it, but many are also cognizant that the tide is clearly shifting.

While 59 percent of Republicans said they oppose gay marriage in the Post-ABC News poll, the number is down from 72 percent in 2004. And a slim majority of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents under 50 — upon whom the party will rely increasingly in future elections — said they support gay marriage.

Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBT advocacy group, said he sees increasingly diverse views in the party with regard to gay marriage.

“What you’re seeing right now is an overall shift in the Republican Party that appreciates and respects differing views on the subject of marriage equality,” Angelo said. “Chairman Priebus and Senator Flake have stated their positions, but so have Senator Portman, Congressman Hanna and Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. The GOP is no longer walking in lockstep on this issue.”

The last three names Angelo cited are the only current congressional Republicans who have declared support for same-sex marriage. (Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, recently said her views are “evolving.”)

Rogers, the Republican strategist, suggested that showing tolerance but opposition to gay marriage may be untenable over time.

“A GOP leader has to appear to be tolerant yet opposed. It is hard to maintain that position, and it’s not flattering,” Rogers said. “Many Republicans have been caught flat-footed by the speed at which voter opinion is changing.”

The alternative positions don’t look all that politically enticing, either, though. Many conservatives, who play an outsize role in GOP primaries, remain opposed to gay marriage. So, endorsing it carries electoral risks for a lot of Republicans. But given the way public opinion has been shifting, coming across as totally intolerant of gay marriage supporters is a politically perilous proposition in many general elections.

Time will tell whether a “we can disagree without being disagreeable” stance with regard to gay marriage is sustainable for a wide swath of the Republican Party, or whether the political pressures imposed by both opponents and advocates of it will force leaders to align themselves more closely with one side or the other.

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