Further complicating the gay-marriage debate is the fact that over the last two years, court decisions overturning state same-sex marriage bans (and subsequent appeals of these decisions) have brought the issue into the national spotlight. When asked, establishment candidates such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker have largely sidestepped questions by deferring to court decisions. "We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law,” Bush said in a statement in early January. Chris Christie and Scott Walker have similarly declared the issue settled after courts overturned same-sex marriage bans in their home states of New Jersey and Wisconsin.
However, if a major Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of state-level bans arrives as expected this spring, it will push the issue further into the foreground, just as GOP hopefuls begin their campaigns in earnest. While some have argued that the Court's decision could offer moderate Republicans cover by neutralizing the debate, it seems unlikely that Iowa conservatives will sit quietly on the sidelines if the high court rules against traditional marriage. Instead, a ruling resolving the issue in favor of gay marriage will likely heighten tensions. Republican candidates who might otherwise be able to remain silent will be forced to answer tough questions from passionate, conservative caucus-goers.
“It’s going to be more than a talking point, a lot of time in the past people have gotten by without saying much," Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative Iowa activist who organized for the last two GOP caucus winners, told NBC News. "Now, it’s going to be ‘what is your leadership strategy to ensure that marriage is upheld, one man, one woman for the benefit of the entire country?'”
Making it harder for moderate Republicans to sidestep the gay-marriage debate altogether will be candidates like conservative firebrand Ted Cruz, who has introduced a Constitutional amendment allowing state legislatures to ban same-sex marriage if the Supreme Court rules against the states this spring. Supporting Cruz is another potential Republican presidential candidate, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. "If the Supreme Court were to throw out our law, our constitutional amendment—I hope they wouldn't do that—if they were to do that, I certainly will support Ted Cruz and others that are talking about making ... a constitutional amendment to allow states to continue to define marriage,” Jindal told ABC's "This Week" on January 25. Advocating such a strong position on the campaign trail will rile the grassroots base and potentially force more moderate candidates like Bush, Christie and Walker to the right.
Whether or not GOP candidates like Jeb Bush want to talk about gay marriage, it's likely that the Republican party base and current events will force them to at least acknowledge their positions as the campaign season begins this summer. Should moderates like Bush or Christie accept a favorable Supreme Court ruling, they will risk upsetting grassroots activists and could leave room on the right for a more socially conservative candidate such as Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee to pick up votes. Should they push back against the Court with Cruz-like rhetoric, they will likely alienate themselves from the more moderate general electorate, including millennials who overwhelming support same-sex marriage.
This is the bind in which candidates find themselves: Are they willing to risk losing the primary in order to give themselves a better chance in the general election?