WASHINGTON - The dramatic Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage is forcing Republican leaders to cope, in bright daylight, with something they'd rather handle discreetly: the careful balance between placating their conservative base and reaching out to centrist voters crucial in presidential elections.
Top GOP leaders showed notable restraint this week, while conservative activists fulminated against the court's decision, which requires the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage.
It's a delicate political dance that establishment Republicans perform whenever divisive social issues gain new prominence. Republicans are unified and confident in their anti-tax, small-government principles. But nonfinancial issues cause more problems.
Republicans are struggling to keep pace with rapidly increasing public acceptance of gay rights. They're also embroiled in intraparty debates over illegal immigration. And a third sensitive issue charged back into prominence this month when House Republicans voted to sharply restrict abortion rights. A similar bill triggered a midnight standoff this week in the Texas legislature.
All these issues pose major challenges to Republican leaders in Washington if not elsewhere. Conservative activists, who form the party's backbone, care passionately about these matters, and they will give Republican candidates only so much leeway before rebelling. Many House Republicans, in particular, cater to such voters, hoping to avoid a GOP primary challenge from the right.
But up-for-grabs centrist voters hold more moderate views on these issues. Their drift towards Democrats in recent years is a key reason why Republicans lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
The high court's rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act already is stirring new debates over gay rights in the states, with unpredictable effects on state and federal elections. Thirty-seven states still bar same-sex marriage, including presidential battlegrounds Ohio, Florida and Virginia. If activists try to legalize gay marriage in these states, it might fire up conservatives and help GOP candidates in next year's midterm elections. But it also might drive a further wedge between Republican presidential hopefuls and unaligned voters in 2016 and beyond.
"In less than a decade, opposition to gay marriage has transformed from a marginal political winner for Republicans to a liability with swing voters," said GOP consultant John Ullyot.
National Republican leaders carefully calibrated their responses this week to the Supreme Court's ruling. House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement: "While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances." He said he hopes states "will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell issued no statement at all. His aides, when asked, said McConnell "supports traditional marriage."
Boehner said he has no plans to deal with a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and it would have no chance anyway in the Senate.
The Democratic National Committee chortled that "some Republican leaders are conspicuously missing in action."
The GOP's most conservative lawmakers, meanwhile, blasted away.
"Marriage was debased today," said Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana said it was "a sad day when the same court that upheld Obamacare decides to reverse course on thousands of years of tradition and a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress."
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas vowed to introduce a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "These unelected judges have allowed the desires of adults to trump the needs of children," he said.
Huelskamp, who has feuded with Boehner, dismissed what he called the Republican "establishment class in Washington."
"You have consultant after consultant who suggested that Republicans change their positions and abdicate their principles," he said. "There's always the argument, that, 'Boy, if we were more like Democrats, we'd win elections.' Ask John McCain how that worked out."
McCain, who lost to President Barack Obama in 2008, was generally seen as a moderate - or at least unorthodox - Republican.
After Mitt Romney's loss to Obama last fall, establishment Republicans underwent weeks of soul-searching and self-scrutiny. A party-commissioned report said Republicans must embrace "comprehensive immigration reform" to improve their damaged relationship with Hispanic voters. That's generally interpreted as including a pathway to citizenship for millions living here illegally.
Many House Republicans reject the advice.
"The biggest mistake we can make as a party is to pander to the Hispanic community," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. The top priority is to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, adding: "the American people are with the Republicans on this."
Huelskamp agreed. "How do you reach out to Latinos?" he said. "On marriage and family and life issues, that is the biggest attraction they have to the party now."
Such discussions unsettle Republican presidential campaign strategists. Blatantly catering to centrist voters in 2016 could antagonize loyal conservatives who have funded and supported the party for years. But standing pat on immigration, gay marriage and other issues could perpetuate, or worsen, the political dynamics that lifted Obama to consecutive wins.
Even some Democrats sympathize. The GOP's hard-right base "is more demanding and more important" than was the Democrats' liberal base in the early 1990s, said Al From, an architect of Bill Clinton's successful bid to nudge his party toward the center two decades ago.
Elected Republican leaders' virtual silence over Wednesday's gay marriage ruling suggested they'd prefer to de-emphasize the matter as next year's midterm elections approach. Their most conservative colleagues won't play along.
"The court got it wrong," said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. "The debate over marriage will continue, with the states leading the way."