The Republicans’ gay marriage conundrum

Opinion

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FEBRUARY 10: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) waves as he leaves after he addressed the Heritage Action for America's Conservative Policy Summit February 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Sen. Cruz discussed the 'American Energy Renaissance Act' that he will introduce to the Senate soon. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

FEBRUARY 10: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) waves as he leaves after he addressed the Heritage Action for America's Conservative Policy Summit February 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Sen. Cruz discussed the 'American Energy Renaissance Act' that he will introduce to the Senate soon. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Amid rising momentum in favor of legalizing gay marriage, Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa conservative activist who helped both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum win the last two Republican caucuses in his state, said he would strongly oppose any Republican presidential candidate who backed same-sex unions and predicted such a person would not be able to win in Iowa or capture the GOP nomination overall.

“I don’t think they would get a foothold anywhere and they would definitely get beat in Iowa,” Vander Plaats said of any Republican who supported gay marriage.

And Vander Plaats said he and other social conservatives there would “do their due diligence” in pressing any Republican who comes to Iowa to pledge both now and in the future that they will support marriage only between a man and a woman.

The comments, in an interview with me, were a bit of a warning shot to potential Republican 2016 candidates. Vander Plaats runs a social conservative group called The Family Leader in Iowa, and is an influential enough figure that six of the Republican 2012 candidates attended a forum on faith and politics his group sponsored during the campaign.

Mitt Romney skipped that event, lost Iowa and still won the nomination, but his struggle to win social conservatives and Tea Party voters lengthened the nomination process.

The remarks of Vander Plaats, who chaired Huckabee’s 2008 campaign in Iowa and endorsed Santorum on the eve of the 2012 caucuses, illustrate the challenges for Republicans as they look toward 2016. A growing number of Americans overall, including the majority of Republicans under 40 according to some surveys, support same-sex marriage. A series of court rulings over the last year suggest that gay marriage becoming legal in most states is inevitable.

Karl Rove, one of the most influential strategists in the Republican Party, said last year he could imagine the party’s 2016 nominee being a gay marriage supporter. And broader acceptance of people who are gay is also on the rise, as NFL executives were widely criticized this week when they suggested teams would be wary of drafting Michael Sam after he publicly declared he is gay.

At the same time, the Republican Party has a sizable, influential bloc of both older voters and religious conservatives, two groups who polls show are wary of gay marriage. Those conservatives are particularly influential in early primary states in the Republican nomination process like Iowa and South Carolina.

That may explain why no top Republican leader in Congress has said they support same-sex unions, nor have any of the Republicans, such Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who are considered among the party’s top potential 2016 candidates.

In fact, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another potential Republican presidential candidate, reemphasized his support of marriage being between a man and a woman this week.