How the Supreme Court Can Save Republicans—If the Party Lets It

The GOP might be disappointed with the justices after last week, but politically it still can win out.

The Supreme Court did not rule with the Republican Party last week when it upheld the president's Affordable Care Act and effectively legalized gay marriage across the country. Yet, the losses could provide Republican presidential candidates with more political flexibility on the campaign trail, and that could could work in their favor.

Things don't tend to move quickly or seamlessly on Capitol Hill, which is why when the Supreme Court upheld federally mandated insurance subsidies in 34 states in King v. Burwell, the Republican Party was publicly outraged. Presidential candidates fanned out statements of shock and frustration, but behind closed doors, there still was something to celebrate.

If the Supreme Court had gutted the law, congressional Republicans planned to reconfigure President Obama's landmark health care law. For months, they had been gaming out a post-King scenario. The opportunity would have empowered them to overhaul key pieces of the law they disdained, but it most certainly would have included a long intraparty battle that would have consumed Congress for months, potentially left millions uninsured, and forced Republican presidential candidates into the middle. Now, Republicans can campaign against Obamacare without cleaning up the subsidy fallout.

"The conversation changes now. It is no longer about them trying to figure out how they are going to provide subsidies. Now there is going to be a real focus on providing a solution," Republican strategist Mercedes Schlapp said. "It goes from being a potentially messy situation to honing in and focusing their message on providing a patient-centered alternative."

While congressional Republicans still are eying an Obamacare overhaul through the budget-reconciliation process, that effort is dead on arrival at the White House. That enables Republicans from Scott Walker to Marco Rubio to rally against the president, without being boxed in by their own party's policies. They don't have to fix a problem, they merely have to come up with an independent alternative. Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway says the burden now becomes "being very specific" with what they would do if they win the White House.

On gay marriage, Republican pollsters see a chance for candidates to put that social issue behind them. As support grows for same-sex marriage, Republicans may have been in a tougher position had the Supreme Court not decided to legalize marriage in every state. Candidates will still be asked about whether they personally support gay marriage, but instead of being pressured to take a position based on what they would do if they were president, candidates can easily defer to the Court decision. They can reaffirm their personal support for traditional marriage and emphasize the dangers of "judicial activism," all the while making it clear that the Court has already spoken. The Republican National Committee basically took this tact in the statement they released after the case was decided.

"This has now been settled," Conway says.

But strategists see yet another boost for the GOP that could come from the back-to-back Supreme Court decisions: They may motivate conservative primary voters to come out in 2016 out of fear that the next president matters even more if the current Supreme Court is ruling against conservative policies, with the chance for significant turnover at the Court during the next administration.

"Voters have their eyes wide open because they realize there is so much at stake if they lose in 2016. I think judicial activism will now be a front-and-center issue in this race," Schlapp says.

Attuned to those potentially growing fears among conservative voters, Sen. Marco Rubio released a statement Friday saying that while the United States must "abide by the law ... it must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood."

And Republicans still can use the decision to mobilize their base by assailing the decision as an assault on religious liberty.

"This decision will pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious-freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement. "The government should not force those who have sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage to participate in these ceremonies."