RICHMOND, Virginia — In state capitols all across the country, Republicans are coming to terms with a 2012 election in which social and cultural issues worked decisively against them. President Obama trounced Mitt Romney among women last fall, and controversial statements about rape cost the GOP two U.S. Senate seats. In what hardly seems a coincidental move, Republican state legislators in diverse places are focusing their attention on taxes and spending rather than abortion and gay marriage.
The change in tone is remarkable for its speed and scope, coming after two years in which a record number of abortion restrictions were enacted and same-sex marriage bans continued to spread.
Virginia is a good example. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell made his strategy clear in his opening address to the 2013 legislative session. McDonnell focused on transportation and education, and said he wanted to put behind him the divisive battles over social issues that marked 2012.
Just a year ago, McDonnell signed a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound procedure. The issue dominated last year's legislative session and roiled pro-abortion activists nationwide. It briefly made the Virginia GOP the butt of late-night comedy television and became Exhibit A in what Democrats called the Republican “War on Women.” Some say it cost the governor a chance at the No. 2 spot on the Republican presidential ticket.
This year is different, in Virginia as in a sizeable number of Republican-dominated states. “The Republican party is rethinking its position in American politics totally,” says Toni Travis, a political science professor at George Mason University. “People are thinking, ‘Well, I'm a Republican, but what kind of Republican?'”
Similar adjustments are taking place in Indiana. It's there that statements about rape from Republican candidate Richard Mourdock are blamed for the loss of one of those U.S. Senate seats. A few months ago, GOP leaders in Indiana appeared certain that they would cast a crucial vote this year against same sex marriage. Now they are rethinking the question.
The legislative leaders have refused to say for sure whether they will pursue a second vote on a constitutional same-sex marriage ban, a vote necessary to put the issue before the public for final approval. They point to a pending U.S. Supreme Court case as one reason to wait, but they also say the dominant issue for them in 2013 is the budget, not gay marriage.
Of course, all legislatures treat budget issues as vitally important. But what's happening in Indiana represents a clear change in a solidly Republican state. It's a striking departure from 2011, when the constitutional ban on gay marriage passed the House the first time by a 70-26 margin and passed the Senate 40-10. The state's new Republican governor, Mike Pence, who has a record as an outspoken conservative on social issues, has downplayed gay marriage and said he will stay out of any legislative debate on the subject.
The change of tone in Indianapolis hasn't quieted pressure from the right, as activists have agitated for another vote to put the gay marriage ban in the constitution. The ban has been introduced in both chambers, and Republicans are expected to announce a course this week.
But whether there is a vote or not, Republican leaders have not been shy about displaying their shift in strategy. When asked about gay marriage at a news conference last month, House Speaker Brian Bosma replied, “Anybody have a real question, an important question?” This was the same lawmaker who once called a similar effort “the most critical piece of the people's business.”
Competing Interests, Continuing Wave
The shift is by no means universal. In a few states, Republicans appear poised to press ahead on social issues, despite efforts by some to change the subject. Lawmakers in solidly Republican Texas, Mississippi and South Dakota are targeting abortion, family planning and other social questions. The federal health care law creates a new opportunity to focus on reproductive health, insurance and birth control.
A number of states are seeing an emerging division between conservative activists who want to press forward on the social agenda and more business-minded Republicans who view that as politically unwise.
North Carolina is such a state. Members of a veto-proof Republican legislative majority are readying a slate of abortion bills, with a keen eye toward the federal health care law. But incoming Republican Governor Pat McCrory has said he's not interested, setting up a potential intraparty showdown. The conflict could come down to whether McCrory would veto controversial bills passed by his own party – and whether the party's lawmakers would override him in return, as they did last year when former Democratic Governor Bev Perdue vetoed a wide range of abortion restrictions.
With the legislature just beginning its session, the outcome is anyone's guess. “I don't think McCrory will be leading them in that direction,” says Virginia Gray, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina. “But on the other hand, I don't know that he's going to veto this legislation — and it might not matter if he does.”
A Difficult Détente
Virginia is a good state to watch, because it will hold a gubernatorial election this coming November. A true détente among Republicans on social issues has proved elusive, despite GOP leaders' efforts. Conservative Republicans have been pressing ahead with abortion-related measures, confident voters will back them.
“I'm not going to quit trying just because people pressure me,” says State Delegate Bob Marshall, a sponsor of many bills that address social issues – or, as he calls them, “the things Republicans don't want to talk about.” The issues have failed to gain traction, he says, because of the leadership's desire to quash them. “Republicans are ducking this.”
Meanwhile, Democrats have introduced measures of their own, including a handful of efforts aimed at repealing the controversial ultrasound requirement enacted last year. It was a final attempt to make the requirement optional that stirred advocates on both sides last week in Richmond, as the bill was set for a Senate hearing. Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the outspoken social conservative and all-but-certain nominee for governor, backed the bill, reportedly telling the Democratic sponsor, Senator Ralph Northam, that he'd push Republicans to approve it.
It was a sign of Cuccinelli looking to moderate his reputation, analysts said, citing worries about his chances this November, when he'll likely face Democrat Terry McAuliffe. But in a hastily convened committee hearing — a “kangaroo court,” as Northam put it – Republicans united to kill the bill. The 2013 legislative session appears likely to end this week without a repeat of last year's fights over abortion.