Scott Walker has his groove back with social conservatives and he has the Supreme Court to thank.
After the court ruled that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry, Walker released a statement calling for a constitutional amendment to let states define marriage as between one man and one woman. Social conservatives loved it, and it came at a moment when he needed all the love he could get.
Back in May, the Wisconsin governor traveled to Washington to meet with a bevy of leaders from the party’s more conservative wing.
And in that meeting, there were lots of Walker skeptics.
Penny Nance—the president of the influential conservative group Concerned Women for America—emailed to The Daily Beast after that meeting to say she still wasn’t convinced Walker was a strong enough opponent of same-sex marriage.
“I think people are still trying to discern” his position, she wrote.
His list of confusing comments about the issue over the years made it a little tricky for some on the right to ascertain his position.
In 2014, for instance, after a district court judge declared that the Badger State’s ban on same-sex marriage wasn’t constitutional, he gave an oddly obtuse answer on the topic at a press conference.
“It doesn’t really matter what I think,” Walker told reporters, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s in the Constitution.”
Then he refused to clarify his position on the marriage question.
“No,” he said. “I’m just not stating one at all.”
For gay marriage foes, that little exchange didn’t exactly make him a profile in courage.
And it wasn’t the only time he telegraphed a position on the question that was a bit more nuanced than you might expect from, well, a Republican presidential candidate.
In a 2013 interview with Bloomberg, the likely 2016 contender indicated that he could be comfortable with federal legislation protecting LGBT people from workplace discrimination. Walker noted that Wisconsin didn’t let same-sex couples married, but still afforded them those employment protections.
“There’s a healthy balance there,” he said.
Opponents of same-sex marriage are not interested in finding “a healthy balance,” and they weren’t thrilled with Walker’s comments.
But all this changed on Friday after the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed.
In response, Walker released a statement saying he favored amending the Constitution to let individual states decide whether or not to allow those unions. As The Daily Beast noted at the time, this distinguished him from other top-tier Republican contenders who refused to back changes to the Constitution.
And people noticed. When the Beast asked Nance if Walker’s full-throated support of a constitutional amendment gave her more confidence that he would side with her on the marriage question, she emailed, “Boy has it!”
“In calling for a federal marriage amendment that would allow states to determine their own laws on marriage Walker has put to final rest any questions social conservatives had on his willingness to lead on the matter,” she wrote.
And though Nance—like most activists—doesn’t have a 2016 favorite yet, she said taking a Walker-esque position on marriage is a must.
“Just as Roe made the issue of life central to support for a presidential candidate, the Obergefell decision has hardened our resolve on marriage,” she wrote. “The courts have made them issues that candidates for federal office can no longer duck.”
Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, is in the same boat. He said he was “distraught” with the comments Walker made last year about the overturn of Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment.
“I thought it was a huge mistake,” Brown said. “But ever since then, he has been working very hard to be a leader on the marriage issue.”
He also said that, in his view, Walker has changed his position on marriage, and for the better.
“If we ask people to sign pledges and stand for principles, then when they do it, we can’t second-guess them,” he said. “So I’m ecstatic he’s doing this.”
And Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Iowa-based conservative group The Family Leader, said he was also delighted with Walker’s endorsement of an amendment.
He said his group was “openly concerned” with some of Walker’s previous comments on marriage, and that the governor’s stance has assuaged those fears.
Asked if he thought Walker had changed his position on how to handle marriage issues, Vander Plaats said, “Yea, without question.”
“I was thrilled to be able to see his response to this opinion,” he said.
Walker aides emailed to say that the governor’s position on the issue hasn’t actually changed, noting that in 1997 as a state legislator, he voted to ban same-sex marriage in the Badger State.
But while Walker’s single-minded opposition to same-sex marriage has won him favor with anti-same-sex-marriage activists, it’s already alienated some big Republican donors.
The Washington Post reported last week that Walker lost the support of one hedge-fund billionaire after having a long argument with him about the issue.
And an insider close with the New York Republican donor community expressed disappointment with Walker’s change of tone on the issue and support for a constitutional amendment, and suggested it could make it harder for him to secure New York Republican donors.
Mary Cheney, an openly gay political consultant who is also Dick Cheney’s daughter, expressed bafflement at Walker’s move.
“From a political perspective, I don’t understand why you would do that,” she said.
Due to an editing error, Walker’s position on gay marriage was initially misstated in this piece.