As Republicans go quiet, Democrats capitalize on marriage-equality momentum

Photo: Scott Walker. Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr.

Photo: Scott Walker. Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr.

Republican leaders may not want to talk about same-sex marriage, but it increasingly appears Democrats aren’t going to give them much of a choice.

During a call with reporters Wednesday organized by the Democratic National Committee, out Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) slammed remarks made by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that the GOP is not fighting same-sex marriage as “disingenuous and false.”

“That comment came as quite a shock to me and most members of the LGBT community in Wisconsin, especially after Scott Walker made this comment just days after he joined Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen in appealing a decision that struck down Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriages,” Pocan said.

In an interview with the Associated Press during last week’s National Governors Association summer meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, Walker said of same-sex marriage, “I don’t think the Republican Party is fighting it.”

“I’m not saying it’s not important,” Walker continued, “but Republicans haven’t been talking about this. We’ve been talking about economic and fiscal issues. It’s those on the left that are pushing it.”

Since a federal judge declared Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in a ruling handed down last month, Walker — a likely candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — has increasingly shown little desire to weigh in on the subject, despite the fact that his attorney general is appealing the decision on behalf of his administration. 

“It really doesn’t matter what I think now,” Walker said last month, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s in the constitution.” Asked if he was rethinking his position on same-sex marriage, Walker responded, “No, I’m just not stating one at all.”

But if Pocan’s statements are any indication, Democrats appear poised to increase the pressure on Republicans who see little to gain from wasting political capital waging the culture wars.

“The first and most obvious question is, how can you say you’re not fighting same-sex marriage immediately after you appeal a decision to strike down same-sex marriage ban in our state?” Pocan said. “It seems as though Scott Walker is trying to have it both ways. He’s trying to leave the door open for his presidential ambitions because he can see the writing on the wall and he knows the current national Republican Party message is a loser in 2016.”

This isn’t the first time Pocan has criticized the Walker administration for their appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb’s June 6 decision striking down Wisconsin laws prohibiting marriage between same-sex couples.

In a statement released after the Walker administration announced their appeal, Pocan labeled their decision to appeal as a “regressive and blatantly political attempt to revive a hateful and discriminatory law which violates the ideals of liberty and equality in our Constitution. He also accused Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen of “still living in a more hateful day.”

Similarly, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin — the first out member of the upper chamber — accused Walker and Van Hollen of “standing in the way of freedom, fairness and equality for all Wisconsinites.”

“The Wisconsin I know deserves better than a Governor and Attorney General defending discrimination when every court that has considered the issue has ruled that discrimination violates our constitution,” Baldwin said in a statement.

The fight that has erupted between a high profile Republican governor and Democratic members of Congress illustrates the dramatic political shift that has occurred in recent years on the issue of marriage equality. When Wisconsin lawmakers first approved the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004, before it was approved by voters as part of a statewide referendum in 2006, President George W. Bush was campaigning for reelection while actively calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit same-sex marriage nationwide. 

During a Politico event featuring former Vice President Dick Cheney, his wife Lynne Cheney and daughter Liz Cheney, the Cheney family dodge repeated questions on a family rift over the issue of same-sex marriage. 

“This is an issue we disagree about. And I don’t have anything new to add to that,” said Liz Cheney, an opponent of same-sex marriage, when asked about her disagreement with her sister, Mary Cheney, and father over the issue of same-sex marriage. During Liz Cheney’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in Wyoming last year, a family feud broke out over the issue of same-sex marriage between Liz Cheney, Mary Cheney and Mary Cheney’s s spouse, Heather Poe.

While Republican leaders may want to focus instead on issues such as jobs and the economy, rather than their views on same-sex marriage, that doesn’t mean they are throwing in the towel just yet.

Speaking to reporters at the the National Governors Association summer meeting, Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) said the debate over marriage equality isn’t over.

“I don’t think there’s some referee who stands up and says, ‘OK, now it’s time for you to change your opinion,’” Christie said, according to Politico. “The country will resolve this over a period of time. But do I think it’s resolved? No.”

According to Raymond Buckley, vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee, Christie’s view that marriage equality hasn’t won, despite increasing support among Americans and a flood of legal and political victories, is telling.

“As chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, it’s a safe bet to say Christie’s position is shared by countless other Republican governors,” Buckley said.

Nevertheless, Christie added that the issue is settled in New Jersey, where the likely 2016 presidential hopeful abandoned his fight over a court ruling legalizing marriage equality in the Garden State last fall.

“When I know that I’ve been defeated, you don’t bang your head against the wall anymore and spend taxpayer money to do it,” Christie said.

As Republicans seek to achieve a fine balance between their opposition to same-sex marriage and a nation that has increasingly come to embrace same-sex couples’ right to marry, one Republican appears to have found a path forward.

“A week does not go by when someone doesn’t come up to me and say something. Sometimes people disagree with me, and that’s fine, I respect their point of view. But for the most part, people come up to me and say that my willingness to talk about this has been helpful to them and their families,” Sen. Rob Portman, the first Republican member of the Senate to openly endorse same-sex marriage, said during an interview with Politico. Portman, who announced his support for same-sex marriage in March 2013 after learning that his son is gay, has also left the door open to a run for president in 2016. 

“More and more people, because like me they had a family member or a friend or a colleague who was gay, come to understand that this is not a choice,” Portman continued, “this is who people are and that we should respect people for who they are.”

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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