Political observers agree that the U.S. Supreme Court decision for same-sex marriage will have some kind of political impact on Election 2016 — but the nature of that impact differs depending on whom you ask.
Steve Elmendorf, a D.C.-based gay Democratic lobbyist, said the ruling is a plus for Democrats based on reactions from GOP candidates.
“You have two reaction from Republicans: You either have a very negative reaction, which will not sit well with the vast majority of the public, or you have silence, or hand-wringing, or an effort to thread the needle, and that doesn’t sit well either,” Elmendorf said. “I think people actually are pro-marriage, the vast majority of the country is pro-marriage, and the extent to which the Republican Party is on the wrong side of that, it’s going to hurt them in 2016.”
Elmendorf added it’s highly unlikely at this point in the election cycle there will be a Republican candidate “who is pro-gay marriage, which is the position you should be in for this election.”
According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 59 percent of Americans say they back the Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernard Sanders and Martin O’Malley each praised the ruling.
“It reflects the will of the vast majority and growing multitude of Americans who believe that LGBT couples deserve to be recognized under the law and treated equally in the eyes of society,” Clinton said. “And it represents our country at its best: inclusive, open and striving towards true equality.”
Pro-LGBT Republican political observers say damage to the GOP will depend on whether the party nominates someone vocal in opposition to the decision or a candidate with a more muted response.
Some in the mix — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio — have said they disagree with the decision, but are generally seeking to move on with the exception of calls to protect religious liberty. Others — Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz — are urging defiance and calling for a constitutional amendment against the decision. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is backing an amendment that would return the marriage issue to the states.
David Lampo, a gay Virginia Republican activist who has said the party would benefit if the Supreme Court takes the marriage issue off the table, said the party should — and is likely to — nominate someone in the first category to remain viable.
“In the end, the party’s candidate will be someone who explicitly accepts where America is right now on this issue, i.e., in support of the court’s decision, and who tries to energize the party’s base with other issues that have broad support across the party and that can appeal to younger voters as well,” Lampo said.
Liz Mair, a pro-LGBT Republican political strategist, said her general sense is the ruling is a boon to the GOP because it takes an issue off the table for a lot of voters that would normally be targeted by Democrats, but shared the sense it depends on the nominee.
“The numbers on the issue have already shifted enough that those who want to make things like proposed constitutional amendments a centerpiece of their campaigns are probably creating a hard, artificially low ceiling for themselves,” Mair said. “But that’s hardly been the response of every candidate, and I suspect that this issue is largely going away — what I think the end result will be, unlike with, say Roe v Wade — is probably beneficial to Republicans who would rather be hitting former Secretary Clinton on her economic and national security policies, her terrible civil liberties record, and her record of failure in high government office.”
Shortly after the decision, Bush declined to endorse a constitutional amendment that would reverse the ruling, clearing up persistent questions on whether he would back the measure. The candidate assumes a position different from his brother, former President George W. Bush, who made a constitutional amendment a centerpiece of his 2004 presidential campaign.
A spokesperson for the Bush campaign is quoted in the Tampa Bay Times as saying the former Florida governor doesn’t back a constitutional amendment on marriage.
“Gov. Bush does not believe amending the Constitution is the right course,” spokeswoman Kristy Campbell reportedly said. “Right now, we should focus on defending religious liberty by protecting those who act on their conscience and appointing judges who understand the limits placed on them by the Constitution.”
According to the conservative website Breitbart.com, the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, which recently distributed a questionnaire to candidates asking about the extent to which they’ll oppose same-sex marriage, declared it couldn’t support Bush or Rubio, who has previously refused to back a Federal Marriage Amendment.
“Walker, Santorum, Jindal, Huckabee, and Perry have all made strong commitments at this critical time,” NOM President Brian Brown reportedly said. “Rubio and Bush, on the other hand, are simply caving. Period. Right now I can’t see conservatives supporting either.”
But the political implications of the decision aren’t limited to the upcoming election. LGBT advocates are banking on the ruling creating momentum to pass a comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination bill. Among those advocates is Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, who has made public appearances in Texas and on news talk shows to discuss the need to end LGBT discrimination in all major areas of the law.
“In the majority of states in this country, even after this historic opinion, you know that a couple can get married at 10 a.m., they can be fired by noon and they can be evicted by their landlord at 2 p.m. simply because there are no explicit protections in federal law when it comes to non-discrimination,” Griffin said on CNN.
Elmendorf said he expects the Supreme Court ruling to boost efforts in passing the legislation, although he acknowledged that the task “will be hard” with large Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress.
“I think that once people see that people are getting married all over the country in all 50 states and the world is not coming to an end, then it builds momentum to do something else,” Elmendorf said. “A comprehensive non-discrimination bill is the next thing, so whether it can happen this Congress is really up to the Republican leadership. I think its chances are enhanced by the marriage decision.”
It’s unknown when the legislation will be introduced, or the exact nature of the measure. The offices of Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) haven’t responded to multiple requests to comment about the bill. Previously, they had said they’d introduce the legislation in the spring, but that time has passed.
Advocates have called for a measure enacting non-discrimination protections in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, federal programs and credit with a religious exemption identical for other classes of individuals under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work and a proponent of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the previous Congress, said he supports the comprehensive bill, but said advocates should look to the courts to pass non-discrimination protections.
“The LGBT movement has won far more marriage victories by litigating as compared to lobbying,” Almeida said. “The lesson is to return to the federal courts now with LGBT litigation challenging workplace and housing discrimination as sex discrimination banned by the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act and other federal statutes. I bet we can get LGBT workplace or housing cases to the U.S. Supreme Court sooner than the U.S. House of Representatives will allow an up-or-down vote on a comprehensive LGBT bill.”
It should be noted gender isn’t covered under the public accommodation protections of the Civil Rights Act, so LGBT advocates would not be able to argue in court that portion of the law applies to LGBT people. That section of the law, Title II, is also limited to hotels, restaurants and theaters.
Yet another effort to which LGBT advocates are hoping the Supreme Court adds momentum is keeping an endorsement of a Federal Marriage Amendment out of the upcoming Republican Party platform in 2016.
In 2012, the Democratic Party platform for the first time endorsed same-sex marriage, but the Republican Party alternative said “the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard” and endorsed a constitutional amendment against gay nuptials.
Last week, Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham said opponents of same-sex marriage could renew the anti-gay marriage plank in 2016, but that effort would be ill-advised.
“You can put it in the platform, but in my view it will hurt us in 2016,” Graham said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Jerri Ann Henry, campaign manager for Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, said she thinks the ruling reflects growing support for marriage equality among Republicans and “a desire to reform the platform” to remove the anti-gay plank.
“Many candidates agree that our current Republican platform could hurt the GOP and should be reformed,” Henry said. “We believe 2016 presidential candidates should recognize and respect members of the Republican Party who support the freedom to marry and the view of those who believe the party should be a big tent and welcome conservative voters regardless of where they stand on this issue. Potential and current presidential candidates Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio have all reinforced the need for respect of the court’s ruling as the law of the land.”