Despite the fact that the Republican candidates have been locked in a down-and-dirty, no-holds-barred, ugly-as-all-get-out primary season, an issue typically central to their party’s contests—and internal battles—has somehow avoided much scrutiny: Where do the GOP’s top presidential contenders stand on gay rights?
The last time a Republican won the White House, when George W. Bush snagged a re-election victory in 2004, opposition to same-sex marriage was central to the party’s identity.
But now, the GOP’s top contender avoids addressing the issue, and the candidate in a close second seems extraordinarily comfortable saying different things to different groups of would-be supporters.
Donald Trump, the frontrunner, has attended at least one same-sex wedding and publicly praised his acquaintance Elton John’s marriage to his male partner. And Ted Cruz, despite consistently voicing his opposition to federal protections for same-sex couples, has reportedly made off-the-record comments indicating that the issue isn’t actually that big of a priority for him.
That said, the Texas senator has made legal protections for businesses and individuals who don’t want to hire or serve same-sex couples a central part of his campaign. He regularly talks up his religious freedom focus on the stump, arguing that Christians in the U.S. are under attack.
Trump has telegraphed that he may sympathize with that view, indicating that he supports the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill that gay-rights advocates say could provide cover for businesses to discriminate against LGBT people.
But on the most basic gay-rights question—should the Supreme Court reverse its decision to let same-sex couples wed?—there’s ambiguity.
It’s a conundrum that befuddles the Log Cabin Republicans as they consider whether or not they’ll even endorse a 2016 presidential candidate. And it shows just how much the Grand Old Party is changing—and just how much issues that used to consume Republican voters’ concerns have now been pushed aside.
Trump has made a host of comments on the question of whether or not he supports the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex couples to wed, and it’s given Log Cabin Republicans serious pause. The group put out a video last month highlighting the wide variety of statements he’s made on the subject. They include: that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, that evangelical Christians who oppose same-sex marriage rights can “trust” him on the issue, and that Americans need to come together.
“We’re going to bring people together. That’s your thing, and other people have their thing,” he told a New England Cable News reporter who asked him if he would advance gay rights. “We have to bring all people together.”
That hasn’t happened. At all. Instead, Trump has been resolutely obtuse about the issue—drawing condemnation from the anti-marriage-equality National Organization for Marriage (which endorsed Cruz), and bafflement from Log Cabin Republicans. The group’s president, Gregory Angelo, told The Daily Beast that they requested a meeting with Trump’s campaign five months ago—and have yet to get any formal response.
“It’s important that we as Log Cabin Republicans receive clarification on this issue sooner rather than later,” he added.
But Trump isn’t bowing to the pressure, opting instead to focus on his fear of Muslims and his openness to nuking ISIS.
Robert Jeffress, a top Trump booster who pastors First Baptist Church in Dallas, told The Daily Beast that despite having several conversations with Trump about abortion, the two have never discussed marriage.
“I believe that probably he and Ted Cruz are pretty close on the issue,” he said. “And that is, while they may personally support traditional marriage, they also realize that the Supreme Court has already ruled on this issue and that subject is not going to be re-litigated.”
In fact, Trump told ABC News in February that he would prefer to appoint judges open to overturning the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that enshrined same-sex couples’ marriage rights.
But last August, he said anyone pushing against marriage equality “is doing it for political reasons.”
LOL, nothing matters.
In some ways, though, Cruz has perplexed gay Republicans even more. Though he has consistently said he opposes same-sex marriage rights, his campaign was the only one in California so far to have a meet-and-greet with the Log Cabin Republicans’ Los Angeles chapter. And his reported comments on marriage at a closed-door Manhattan fundraiser last December—where he said it wouldn’t be one of his top three priorities—led many to suspect that he, too, is just playing politics with the issue.
Matthew Craffey, who heads the L.A. chapter of the group, told The Daily Beast that Gary Aminoff headlined a meet-and-greet with them in February. Given Cruz’s stated opposition to marriage equality, the meeting was a little awkward at first.
“The first few minutes were a little bit tense,” Craffey said.
But he added that attendees appreciated Aminoff’s willingness to pitch them on his candidate. No other campaigns have sent representatives to meet with the chapter, he added.
Craffey said Aminoff told attendees that Cruz supported his decision to meet with them and said his campaign should be doing more to court LGBT Republicans’ votes. Aminoff didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story (and neither did the Trump or Cruz campaigns).
Craffey added that despite Cruz’s stated opposition to marriage equality—the candidate holds that individual states should be able to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex unions—he doesn’t think Cruz would do much about it as president.
“Ted Cruz wouldn’t be anti-gay, just hands off,” he said.
And he said he thinks Cruz is playing up that position to boost his primary prospects.
“If you want to make it through the primary, it’s like a necessary evil,” he added.
Angelo added that the Cruz campaign has been “somewhat chilly” to his group, but that the Texan’s Senate office has had an open door to them.
“I’ve met with his chief counsel regarding Obamacare repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and have a collegial relationship with his Chief of Staff, Paul Teller, even though we might not always see eye-to-eye on policy,” he said.
Others on the right take a more introspective view of the issue. Penny Nance, who heads the socially conservative group Concerned Women for America and recently endorsed Cruz, said evangelical Christians need to worry more about their credibility on marriage than anything else.
“We have diluted marriage,” she said. “The divorce rates, the cohabitation rates in the church are very similar to everyone else’s, and so we’ve got to get our own act together. We don’t have the moral standing to talk about this issue if we’re not walking the walk ourselves.”