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Republican governors' words shift on gay marriage

Published July 12, 2014 1:05 pm

Politics • Softening of conservative stance may be more rhetoric than substance.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Nashville, Tenn. • Deep in the nation's Bible Belt, new signs emerged this weekend of an evolution among Republican governors on gay marriage, an explosive social issue that has divided American families and politics for years.

While the Republican Party's religious conservatives continue to fight against same-sex marriage, its governors appear to be backing off their opposition— in their rhetoric, at least. For some, the shift may be more a matter of tone than substance as the GOP tries to attract new voters ahead of the midterm elections. Nonetheless, it is dramatic turn for a party that has long been defined by social conservative values.

"I don't think the Republican Party is fighting it," Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker said of gay marriage. He spoke with The Associated Press during an interview this weekend at the National Governors Association in Nashville.

"I'm not saying it's not important," continued Walker, who is considering a 2016 presidential bid should he survive his re-election test this fall. "But Republicans haven't been talking about this. We've been talking about economic and fiscal issues. It's those on the left that are pushing it."

Walker, like other ambitious Republican governors, is trying to strike a delicate balance.

His comments come just days after he formally appealed a federal judge's ruling striking down Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriages, a ban he supported. But after his party's disastrous 2012 election, the Republican National Committee commissioned a report calling for more "inclusive and welcoming" tones on divisive social issues — particularly those "involving the treatment and the rights of gays."

Walker explained his court appeal simply as his obligation as governor to defend the state's constitution.

Other Republican governors, however, including New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie, opted against appealing a similar ruling in his state, clearing the way for gay marriage to become legal there. But his decision came only after he vetoed his state legislature's initial effort to legalize the practice.

Christie said that same-sex marriage "is a settled issue" in New Jersey, but that the rest of the country would resolve it in time.

"Do I think it's resolved now? No," Christie said. "The overwhelming majority of states in the country still ban same-sex marriage, so I don't think it's time to stop having a discussion."

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, suggested that Republicans are better served by focusing on economic issues.

"I'm a religious conservative, I'm a Catholic, I'm pro-life," he said. "(But) I think the people of Iowa look to me to provide leadership in bringing good jobs and growing the Iowa economy."

A Gallup poll found in May that national support for same-sex marriage reached an all-time high of 55 percent. That includes 30 percent of Republicans and nearly 8 in 10 young adults from both parties.

Courts across the nation repeatedly have struck down gay marriage bans. The latest ruling came Wednesday in Colorado, but it's on hold pending an appeal. At least 20 states now allow gay marriage, although the issue may be headed for the Supreme Court.

The high court's landmark ruling last summer allowed married same-sex couples to receive the same federal benefits as other married people b