Why Some GOP Presidential Hopefuls Are Staying Quiet About Gay Marriage

Same-sex marriage has ceased to be an easy issue for the Republican Party.

Florida's ban on gay marriage expired at midnight Monday, making it the 36th state to legally welcome same-sex couples at the altar. And in the midst of the rapid toppling of dominos in the marriage fight, some Republican presidential hopefuls, including Florida's former governor, find it's easier to stay out of the fray.

In a seemingly blasé comment on Sunday, Jeb Bush, who announced last month that he would seriously consider a 2016 bid, told the Miami Herald that same-sex marriage "ought to be" left to the states to decide.

"The state decided," he said, referring to a December court ruling that declared the state's 2008 ban unconstitutional. "The people of the state decided. But it's been overturned by the courts, I guess."

Compared with the aggressive gay-marriage takedowns of yore—that is, just a few years ago—Bush and some other potential Republican 2016ers who were once more vocal opponents of same-sex marriage sound deflated. In last year's midterm elections, staying mum on same-sex marriage became an oft-used strategy. And for Republicans with an eye—or a long Facebook post—on 2016, a deliberately hands-off, "leave it up to the states" attitude could be the best way to deal with the political hot potato, rather than wasting finite political clout and energy fighting something that a majority of Americans support.

Although 62 percent of Republicans still oppose same-sex marriage, several likely 2016ers—the ones who have early establishment support, at least—have been reluctant to passionately defend that stance. For an issue that Republicans once railed against, the newfound reticence is a sign that politicians don't think taking a hard line on gay marriage will help them fundraise or win.

For his part, Bush has had a unique evolution on gay marriage. When he was running for governor in 1994, he argued in an op-ed that "sodomy" shouldn't be "elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion," BuzzFeed reported Monday night. As governor, he initially opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, then appeared to backtrack, telling a conservative group in Florida he was leaning toward supporting the measure. But in 2012, he expressed support for gay rights, explaining to Charlie Rose that he thought same-sex couples could be role-model parents.

In keeping with that tone Monday night, a Bush spokeswoman told National Journal in an emailed statement that "regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law."

"I hope that we can show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue," Bush said in the statement, "including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty."

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker appeared similarly accepting after learning of the Supreme Court's refusal to hear same-sex marriage appeals, which legalized gay marriage there. He conceded in October that the fight was "over" in his state and seemed eager to move the news cycle in a different direction.

Like Walker, other campaigning politicians largely stayed silent on gay marriage last year.

"Even if they did oppose marriage equality," the Human Rights Campaign's Charlie Joughin told National Journal in December, "it was tough to get them to say it out loud. Folks who previously spent a lot of political capital and ran races based on their opposition to equality are now largely staying mum on the issue."

Another viable 2016er, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has also appeared subdued on gay marriage. After pulling out of a legal battle fighting same-sex marriage in the state in 2013, he called for continued debate on gay marriage within GOP circles last year, but said the issue was "settled" in his state, where the Legislature voted for legalization in 2012.

Of the social conservatives in the budding GOP primary fight, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas haven't wavered from their staunch anti-same-sex-marriage stances. Santorum famously compared gay marriage to polygamy, while Cruz continues to rail against "tragic and indefensible" court rulings that legalize it. And Huckabee, who announced Saturday that he's quitting his Fox News show to explore a 2016 run, has said he'd leave the GOP if the party embraced gay marriage.

With the possibility of Supreme Court action, this year will likely prompt even more questions and debate within the Republican Party over gay marriage. Among GOP presidential contenders gunning for establishment support, staying as far away from the issue as possible seems like a course we'll be seeing more of.