The Supreme Court’s big gay marriage case could rock the 2016 presidential race

The City Hall rotunda is shown with rainbow coloured lights in honour of Gay Pride weekend in San Francisco. AP/Jeff Chiu

The upcoming Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage could shake up the 2016 race for the White House.

The nation’s highest court is reviewing the constitutionality of states’ gay marriage bans and is expected to issue a ruling by June. This means gay marriage will be making headlines throughout the summer — and that’s likely to lead to uncomfortable questions for candidates who’ve stumbled on the issue.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for example, is working to defend allegations of flip-flopping on the issue, and two of her likely opponents are already trying to gain traction by calling her out on it.

“I’m glad Secretary Clinton’s come around to the right positions on these issues,” former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) jabbed Thursday evening. “I believe that we are best as a party when we lead with our principles and not according to the polls.”

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) also piled on.

“I would argue that when Democrats look at my record on all the issues, that they’re going to see that I have been very, very consistent,” he said the same day on MSNBC. “In fact, a lot more consistent than Sen. Clinton. Just today we’re learning more about her flip-flopping on marriage equality.”

O’Malley and Chafee were referring to an NPR interview Clinton gave in 2014, in which she suggested the same-sex marriage question should be dealt with on a state-by-state basis.

“For me, marriage had always been a matter left to the states,” Clinton said at the time, according to a transcript.

After the Clinton campaign told BuzzFeed on Wednesday that she wants the Supreme Court to strike down gay marriage bans, reporters accused her of “shifting” her position. However, Clinton’s campaign later told Business Insider that her position hasn’t changed since 2013, when she came out in support of same-sex marriages. Their argument was based on the idea she has supported same-sex marriage, so backing a pro-gay rights Supreme Court ruling is perfectly consistent with her prior support for individual state laws.

Now, there isn’t much daylight between Clinton and her Democratic opponents on this issue, but Chafee and O’Malley’s comments make it clear they believe her past positions are a vulnerability that can be used against her.

Of course, elected officials flip-flopping on gay marriage is nothing new. From President Barack Obama on down, a wide swath of Democratic politicians have had to adjust to the huge shift in public perceptions in favour of additional rights for gays and lesbians.

Stacey Rollins, 43, left, and Lori Lynn, 50, right, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., take a selfie after they were married during a group wedding ceremony at a hotel in honour of Florida’s ruling in favour of same-sex marriage equality. AP/Lynne Sladky

Republican White House contenders have also been struggling to strike a balance on the same-sex marriage issue, in which there has been a seismic shift both in the general election electorate and even Republican primary voters. According to The Washington Post, a recent Marist College poll indicated that about half of Republican primary voters in key early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — think opposition to gay marriage is unacceptable.

Accordingly, the GOP presidential hopefuls are attempting to thread the needle: all have stated their opposition to gay marriage, but most of them have done so while simultaneously trying to maintain an inclusive tone.

Some are having more success than others.

When a judge ordered the Sunshine State to issue same-sex marriage licenses earlier this year, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) called for “respect for the good people” on both sides of the issue. Shortly after, Bush, whose campaign includes a number of pro-gay rights staffers, had to defend some of his past comments opposing gay rights.

BuzzFeed reported that in 1994, Bush said he was against letting “sodomy be elevated to the same constitutional status as race and religion.” He further said the government is expected to treat some citizens less favourably, including: “Polluters, pedophiles, pornographers, drunk drivers, and developers without proper permits.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has also had to reconcile his libertarian beliefs with the more socially conservative Republican base. After Indiana and Arkansas attracted controversy in March for their allegedly discriminatory “religious freedom” laws, Paul conspicuously refused to comment. This was despite the fact that he weighed in on plenty of other issues at the time.

Other candidates have even been tripped up by seemingly simple questions, such as whether they would be willing to attend a friend or family member’s gay marriage. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) dodged when asked, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he’s never been in that situation.

For his part, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who is presenting his campaign as a forward-looking vision for the future, said he would attend a gay wedding.

“Ultimately, if someone that you care for and is part of your family has decided to move in one direction or another or feels that way because of who they love, you respect that because you love them,” Rubio told Fusion host Jorge Ramos. “If someone gets divorced, I’m not going to stop loving them or having them a part of our lives.”

However, it’s likely that Rubio would prefer to talk about something else. Another potential GOP contender, former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), was unequivocal about whether this issue was a winner for the Republican field.

“It’s simple, if we allow social issues to dominate the conversation,” former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) said in a campaign ad, “we will elect Hillary Clinton president.”

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