Can Marco Rubio Have It All on Gay Marriage?

The presidential hopeful says he doesn’t support marriage equality, but has aides and allies hailing from both camps.

Recent comments in Iowa plus a major recent hire signal that Marco Rubio will continue to try to straddle the line on marriage equality.

“The debate is about how do you define an institution, the institution of marriage, which has been defined the same way for all of human history,” he said at the Presidential Family Forum in Des Moines on Friday. “That’s what the debate is about. It’s not about discriminating against anyone. The debate is about how do you define an institution.”

This rhetoric is unsurprising. This month, the Florida senator and presidential brought on Eric Teetsel as his director of faith outreach. Teetsel was previously the head of the socially conservative Manhattan Declaration, an inter-denominational push against abortion and same-sex marriage.

Friday’s comments and the selection of Teetsel to be Rubio’s point man with evangelical voters may offset some of the flak he’s been catching with social conservatives for his association with Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire and staunch backer of marriage rights for same-sex couples. At the same time, Teetsel’s hardline stance on social issues—he’s compared homosexuality to slavery, for example—could prove problematic for Rubio should he make it to the general election.

It all highlights just how politically dicey the marriage issue can be for Republicans. Same-sex marriage is supported by a majority of Americans and a growing number of Republicans, particularly younger ones. But it’s still very unpopular among white evangelicals, a major GOP voting bloc that holds a lot of sway in states with early primary contests, such as Iowa and South Carolina.

Singer, a major GOP donor, endorsed Rubio last month. When New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, Singer played a pivotal role in the successful effort by meeting with Republican legislators and spending significant sums on advertising to praise the move’s backers.

Just a year later, the billionaire’s future presidential favorite cut an automated phone call for an organization that fought Singer tooth-and-nail in the halls of Albany: the National Organization for Marriage, which is the country’s most energetic and outspoken group fighting same-sex marriage. NOM teamed up with the Floridian to tape robocalls about the importance of opposing marriage equality. The calls went to swing-state voters and voters in states where the issue was on the ballot.

Brian Brown, who heads the National Organization for Marriage, told The Daily Beast that his group reached out to Rubio’s team about taping those calls, and that they have a good relationship with his staff.

“With Rubio, we’ve had a longer history of working together, of him stepping up and talking about the marriage issue,” Brown said.

He added that, in his view, this makes Singer’s endorsement of Rubio even more bothersome.

“And it’s a little more troubling in that sense, because of the fact that we’ve had that relationship and he’s not signed the pledge,” Brown said, referring to the group’s pledge that asks presidential candidates to “support a federal constitutional amendment that protects marriage as the union of one man and one woman” and work to overturn the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. Rubio hasn’t signed that pledge.

But Teetsel’s hire is making NOM happy.

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“I think Eric’s a great pick for him,” Brown said. “Eric’s a great leader, he’s a great friend, it’s great for his campaign. For us the issue is, appointments are good but we need more than just words. We need action—for him to stand up and sign the pledge.”

Teetsel’s views on marriage couldn’t have less in common with Singer’s. He’s consistently advocated for the traditional Christian view that sex outside of the marriage of a man and a woman is sinful and harmful to society.

“Even if there were no harms for children of same-sex couples, Christians would rightly continue to work against sexual brokenness,” he wrote for Religion & Politics in 2013. “Homosexuality, like all sexuality outside the bounds outlined in scripture, is harmful to those involved. Sin destroys, so the same compulsion that drives us to save our neighbor from poverty and injustice ought drive us to help them escape sin.”

And, in pushing back on comparisons of bans on same-sex marriage to Jim Crow laws, Teetsel last year said that “no-holds-barred sexuality” leads to “a life of bondage.”

“As servants of the Gospel we have no choice but to fight doggedly for a culture that enables every human being to experience the abundant life God promises,” he wrote for First Things in 2014. “Racism is a hindrance to that life, as is homosexuality. The tragic irony is that proponents of no-holds-barred sexuality are condemning others to a life of bondage. My conviction is that I ought to have no part in forging the slavers’ chains.”

The hire immediately drew criticism from the liberal People for the American Way.

“Teetsel’s hiring is almost certainly a better reflection of Rubio’s commitment to anti-gay culture warriors than his much-ballyhooed endorsement by billionaire Paul Singer, who has backed gay causes but seems more interested in what Rubio can do for the profitability of his vulture capitalism,” wrote PFAW senior fellow Peter Montgomery.

It’s possible teaming up with both Teetsel and Singer will let Rubio be all things to all men. It’s also possible, though, that it will give everyone their own reason to hate him.