Watching GOP presidential candidates speak at the Values Voter Summit, a pattern emerged: The lower a candidate stands in the polls, the more vehemently he’ll attack LGBT rights.
A number of Republican hopefuls appeared on stage Friday at the annual conference for social conservatives in D.C., which is hosted by the anti-LGBT Family Research Council.
But while top-tier candidates were largely quiet on LGBT issues, the further down the contenders were in the polls, the more they had to say.
Front-runner Donald Trump had nothing to say about LGBT people and made few references to social issues, basing much of his speech on his family Bible, which he held up at the beginning and end of his remarks.
Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, running a close second to Trump in recent polls, also never explicitly addressed LGBT rights, although he accused progressives of seeking to eliminate God from the public sphere. Carson was silent on the issue despite his anti-LGBT reputation and decision to sign the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge to oppose same-sex marriage.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), former New York Gov. George Pataki and Ohio Gov. John Kasich didn’t appear at the Values Voter Summit.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who’s risen in polls after his performance in the second debate, spoke of LGBT rights in terms of protecting religious liberty, which is considered code for conservatives to mean promoting anti-LGBT discrimination.
“In the year 2020, I want to be able to say that we have defended religious liberty,” Rubio said. “That we have supported – that we have worked to our heart to support the right of our people not just to hold traditional views, but to exercise them, to express them.”
Amid efforts by the Obama administration to advance LGBT rights, Rubio accused the administration of attempting to “redefine family.”
“It’s persecuted and now even prosecuted those who do not agree with the new direction that those seek to take us,” Rubio said.
Rubio also made a veiled dig at same-sex marriage, saying he had enjoyed privilege because he was “raised in a stable home by a mother and a father, a man and a woman who were married.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) reiterated the pledge he made during the first Republican presidential debate to instruct his administration to promote religious liberty, saying it would be his priority after rescinding Obama’s “illegal and unconstitutional” actions and investigating Planned Parenthood.
“The third thing I intend to do on the first day in office is instruct the Department of Justice and the IRS and every other federal agency, that the persecution of religious liberty ends today,” Cruz said.
After visiting Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for denying marriage licenses to all couples, gay or straight, in her office despite multiple court orders, Cruz expressed solidarity with her while on stage at the conference.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Kim in a Kentucky jailhouse,” Cruz said. “Now, six months, a year ago, if I had come and said that a Christian woman was going to be thrown in jail, locked up in jail, for living her faith, the media would have dismissed me as a nutcase. That’s where we are today. And I’ll tell you, Kim and I, we embraced. And I told her, I said, Kim, thank you. I said, Kim, you are inspiring millions across this country by standing for your faith.”
The candidates who are polling so low that they didn’t qualify for either of the first two main Republican presidential debates were most vocal about their opposition to LGBT rights.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum bragged about his efforts in the U.S. Senate during the Bush administration to push for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage throughout the country.
“When I was in the United States Senate, I stepped out on the issue of marriage way before anybody else, even before they started to approve gay marriages in the courts,” Santorum said. “I criticized the Supreme Court. I said we needed to pass a federal marriage amendment. Republicans and Democrats alike said – called me all sorts of names. You’re just trying to pick on these people. We don’t need to deal with this. There’s no issue here. There’s no problem here. I said, ‘We’ll have gay marriage within 10 years.’ I said this 11 years ago and I was wrong. I missed by a year.”
Santorum criticized Republican candidates like Fiorina, Bush and Kasich, who say the time has come to move on after the Supreme Court decision.
“We have a United States Supreme Court who has directly assaulted the First Amendment of our Constitution,” Santorum said. “And 10 of the 14 candidates say, oh, it’s time to move on. We have a United States Supreme Court that says marriage has nothing to do with children that marriage is about adults. And 10 out of the 14 Republican candidates say it’s time to move on. If you’re not willing to fight for the Constitution, for the First Amendment, and for the American family, why are you running for president as a Republican?”
Santorum had no comment when asked by the Washington Blade if he shared objections expressed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to the nomination of Eric Fanning, who’s gay, for Army Secretary. Huckabee has said the appointment was Obama’s “attempt at appeasing America’s homosexuals.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal identified the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage as evidence the American Dream is slipping away.
“What do I mean that it’s slipping away?” Jindal said. “Eighteen trillion dollars of debt. Planned Parenthood selling baby parts across our country. We’ve got a president who’s declared war on trans fats and a truce with Iran. We’ve got a president who won’t even say the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ We got a Supreme Court that thinks they’re smarter than God in redefining marriage.”
Jindal also drew a contrast between the fate of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over her email controversy and the fate of Davis as an example of what’s wrong with the country.
“Right now, if you give away our nation’s classified secrets, you mishandled classified information, you can run for president,” Jindal said. “You don’t believe in gay marriage, they lock you up in jail. That’s what’s happening in America today.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, Huckabee said little on marriage or LGBT rights even though he’s the candidate who most publicly supported Davis after she was jailed. Still, he did offer her a brief mention in his remarks, saying “Kim Davis and people like her will never, ever go to jail one minute if I’m president.”
The strength of the candidates’ LGBT attacks is, generally speaking, inversely proportional to their stature in the polls. A Fox News poll published Thursday found among likely Republican voters, Trump leads with 26 percent, followed by Carson at 18 percent, Fiorina at 9 percent, Rubio at 9 percent, Cruz at 8 percent, Bush at 5 percent, Kasich at 4 percent, Huckabee at 3 percent, Paul at 2 percent, Pataki at 1 percent while Santorum, Jindal and Sen. Lindsey Graham didn’t poll at all.
Despite the conservative nature of the Values Voter Summit, the willingness of lower-tier candidates to speak out against LGBT rights stands in contrast to the conference in recent years when the issue was sidelined in favor of other topics like abortion. But that was before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, the Republican presidential primary heated up and opposition to LGBT rights gained steam after the Davis flap.
John Fluharty, who’s gay and the outgoing executive director of the Delaware Republican Party, said lower-tier Republican candidates are attacking LGBT rights “to try and raise their profile.”
“The thing they can’t seem to understand is that politics is about addition,” Fluharty said. “Republicans want a candidate that allows more Americans to have a seat at our table.”
Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, downplayed the distinction of the candidates on LGBT issues.
“I don’t know if there’s big policy differences on these questions, but there’s definitely differences of style, which is why these kinds of conferences are really important,” Schlapp said. “I kind of feel like if you look across the policy areas, there’s not many policy differences with these candidates, but they’re very different kinds of people, different types of men and women.”
Schlapp said the summit was a chance for the American voter to evaluate each of the candidates’ character and the way they approach controversial issues.
“My view is that all of these candidates have all these chances to connect with the people in the audience,” Schlapp said. “And that’s what this is about: to see if there’s some kind of chemistry, if this is someone I can see leading the country.”