Late last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced an amendment to prevent courts from intervening in marriage cases. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), a fellow GOP presidential candidate, said in an interview that it takes a “ridiculous” reading of the U.S. Constitution to think gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.
And those two were among at least nine likely Republican presidential hopefuls who threw slabs of red meat at an Iowa evangelical crowd this weekend on social issues like gay marriage.
“I’m holding firm against gay marriage,” was the title of an opinion piece by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ahead of the Iowa forum last weekend.
Such factors illustrate a complicated dynamic for these Republican presidential hopefuls, as the Supreme Court is set to take up a potentially landmark case on the issue. The court’s justices will decide whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marriage — do states have to allow them to? — and whether states can refuse to recognize same-sex marriages of their residents from other states. A final decision is expected in June after oral arguments before the court this week.
In a free-for-all primary with potentially more than a dozen legitimate candidates, Republicans will be trying to woo an evangelical-heavy crowd in several key early-primary states that still bends strongly against same-sex marriage.
But whoever makes it to the general election will grapple with an electorate that is bending more and more in favor of allowing gay couples the same right to marry. Overall, 63 percent of Americans say gay couples should have a constitutional right to marry, according to a February CNN poll. That includes a robust 42 percent of Republicans.
“The question is, how do Republicans talk about it in a way that helps them in the primary and doesn’t hurt them in the general?” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and the founder and president of Potomac Strategy Group.
Some candidates have given hints of that approach. Rubio, for example, touched off a wave of similar answers when he told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos that he would attend a gay wedding. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who observers consider likely to run, said he already had been to a same-sex wedding reception (but not the actual ceremony).
Others, like Cruz, have focused their ire on the federal courts they say should have no say in the legal definition of marriage. He has signed onto a brief with 57 Republican lawmakers that urges the court to allow people to continue to debate in individual states.
When Cruz attended a national-security focused event hosted by a gay businessman in New York last week, he said one person asked him what he would do if one of his daughters, now aged 4 and 7, told him she was gay.
“My reply: ‘We would love her with all our hearts. We love our daughters unconditionally,’” Cruz said. “A conservative Republican who is willing to meet with individuals who do not agree on marriage and who loves his daughters unconditionally may not reflect the caricature of conservatives promoted by the left, but it’s hardly newsworthy.”
But even that meeting prompted intense backlash. The businessman who hosted the gathering for Cruz, Ian Reisner, was forced to apologize after facing boycott threats from angry members of the gay community. A Facebook page calling for a boycott of his properties had garnered more than 9,000 “likes” by the time he apologized.
Reisner clarified in a Facebook post Sunday night that he did not fully understand the extent of Cruz’s opposition to gay marriage.
“I am shaken to my bones by the e-mails, texts, postings and phone calls of the past few days,” he wrote. “I made a terrible mistake. I was ignorant, naive and much too quick in accepting a request to co-host a dinner with Cruz at my home without taking the time to completely understand all of his positions on gay rights.”
Those debates, strategists and observers say, will likely be amplified as the nation’s highest court takes on the issue this week and in June, when it is expected to issue a decision on the case.
If the court’s ultimate decision legalizes same-sex marriages nationwide, it has the potential to benefit both camps in the Republican Party. For likely candidates like Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, it will mean they can say the Supreme Court has made gay marriage the law of the land.
For opponents of gay marriage, it might mean a chance to show their conservative chops by coming out more forcefully in opposition to nationwide legalization or plotting legislation to overturn the Supreme Court ruling, hoping to seize on the short-term advantages in the primary.
“It has the potential to either take the issue off the table or energize the base,” Mackowiak said. “Candidates have to figure out the short term vs. the long term of the issue.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.