WASHINGTON -- The dramatic Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage is forcing Republican leaders to cope, in bright daylight, with something they'd rather handle discreetly: the careful balance between placating their conservative base and reaching out to centrist voters crucial in presidential elections.
Top GOP leaders showed notable restraint this week, while conservative activists berated the court's decision, which requires the federal government recognize same-sex marriage.
It's a delicate political dance establishment Republicans perform whenever divisive social issues gain new prominence. Republicans are unified and confident in their anti-tax, small-government principles. But non-financial issues cause more problems.
Republicans are struggling to keep pace with rapidly increasing public acceptance of gay rights. They're also embroiled in intraparty debates over illegal immigration. And a third sensitive issue charged back into prominence this month when House Republicans voted to sharply restrict abortion rights. A similar bill triggered a midnight standoff this week in the Texas legislature.
All these issues pose major challenges to Republican leaders in Washington, if not elsewhere. Conservative activists, who form the party's backbone, care passionately about these matters and they will give Republican candidates only so much leeway before rebelling. Many House Republicans cater to such voters, hoping to avoid a GOP primary challenge from the right.
But up-for-grabs centrist voters hold more moderate views on these issues. Their drift toward Democrats in recent years is a key reason why Republicans lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
The high court's rejection of the Defence of Marriage Act already is stirring new debates over gay rights in the states, with unpredictable effects on state and federal elections. Thirty-seven states still bar same-sex marriage, including presidential battlegrounds Ohio, Florida and Virginia. If activists try to legalize gay marriage in these states, it might fire up conservatives and help GOP candidates in next year's mid-term elections. But it also might drive a further wedge between Republican presidential hopefuls and unaligned voters in 2016 and beyond.
National Republican leaders carefully calibrated their responses this week to the Supreme Court's ruling. House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement: "While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances." He said he hopes states "will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell issued no statement at all. His aides, when asked, said McConnell "supports traditional marriage."
The Democratic National Committee chortled that "some Republican leaders are conspicuously missing in action."
The GOP's most conservative lawmakers, meanwhile, blasted away.
"Marriage was debased today," said Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana said it was "a sad day when the same court that upheld Obamacare decides to reverse course on thousands of years of tradition."
-- The Associated Press