The divisive battle over gay rights and religious freedoms that broke out this week in Indiana and Arkansas has thrust the nation’s culture wars back onto the front page and exposed just the sort of rift on social issues that Republicans had been wary of as they set the table for their 2016 presidential contest.
Potential GOP candidates have raced to defend the two Republican-dominated states’ legislatures for passing laws insulating businesses from having to conduct transactions that violates their religious beliefs, and GOP analysts say the fight could help energize conservative voters.
But those same analysts warned Republicans will need to be prepared to handle political blowback from the broader electorate that might be turned off by what they see as harsh rhetoric.
“This really needs a little finesse,” said former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III. “You just need to thread the needle and be cognizant of all the land mines when you handle these kinds of issues.”
Republican legislators and social values groups said they have been stunned by the fight, arguing they are trying to protect business owners with honestly held beliefs from having to swallow their objections. They argue a federal law already does the same at the national level and that gay activists and the national media have badly mischaracterized the issues at stake.
But gay rights groups say the laws go beyond the federal statute and say the GOP-led states appear to be spoiling for a fight by passing the new laws. The new state laws have been drafted in response to reports of businesses such as photographers or bakers who serve gay customers but have drawn a line at providing services for same-sex weddings.
The fallout in Indiana continued on Thursday as Mr. Pence signed a “fix” to their “religious freedom” bill after getting shelled with criticism for the original law. Mr. Pence said the changes were meant to ease fears that it would lead to discrimination against gay and lesbian couples.
The action came a day after Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas called on state lawmakers to reshape a similar measure so that it mirrored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.
Mr. Hutchinson even revealed how his son, Seth, signed a MoveOn.org petition against the bill.
But social conservatives slammed Mr. Pence and Mr. Hutchinson as caving to criticism from liberal groups, the media and even Hillary Rodham Clinton, underscoring the tricky line Republicans must walk as they try to balance their right flank’s interests with the need to reach a broader electorate to win in 2016.
The lesson for the GOP presidential contenders is they must send a clear message that they are part of an “inclusive party that stands for liberty and against discrimination in all its forms — period,” said Kevin Sheridan, a GOP strategist.
“Bottom line, the successful candidate in 2016 will have to have seriously thought about civil, personal and religious protections and be able to articulate their views in a way that makes voters on either side of an issue trust they are reasonable and believe in what they are saying,” Mr. Sheridan said.
Most of the 2016 GOP presidential contenders have rushed to defend the embattled Mr. Pence, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said Thursday that Christians shouldn’t have to chose between their faith and operating their businesses.
“Government is requiring Christians to participate in gay marriage ceremonies that oftentimes contradict their religious beliefs,” he said in an interview with Simon Conway on 600 WMT radio in Iowa. “Here in America we shouldn’t force those with sincerely held religious beliefs to participate in ceremonies they don’t want to. That is the real discrimination.”
Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist, said that sort of message is a good thing for the party because it resonates with social conservative and libertarians alike, and could appeal to a broader audience.
“Most Americans are probably on the side of the baker,” he said. “If you don’t want to bake a cake for someone’s wedding, you probably shouldn’t have to.”
He said the push plays into a broader American ethos of “I am going to leave you alone, and I will suspect that you will leave me alone.”
As for concerns over losing the support of young voters by seeming to oppose gay marriage, he said, “I have seen very little data in the last 20 years, and I have been looking. That tells you that social issues are losers for Republicans.”
Holly Shulman, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, disagreed, saying the Indiana law is a huge problem for Republicans in 2016.
“Republicans can talk all they want about new outreach efforts, but it is all superficial until they change their damaging policies that are far outside the mainstream, and not a single one of the leading contenders for their presidential nomination, nor [in] their national party, is willing to do that,” she said. “The Republican Party is on the wrong side of history, and that’s a bad place for them to be.”
Mr. Davis, the former GOP congressman, said Mr. Hutchinson’s response to the backlash was politically savvy, securing some political cover by calling on lawmakers to align their proposal with the one signed by President Clinton in 1993, and which may have softened his image in the eyes of opponents, including young voters like his son.
“Generationally, this is not a winning issues as seniors die off and young people become ascendant,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you back down on the issues, but it does [mean] you have to be careful in how you handle it.”
The Republican National Committee made a similar argument in its post-2012 election report — called the “Growth and Opportunity Project” — that said the GOP needs to “make sure young people do not see the party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view.”
“Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be,” the report said.