Mike Pence just lobbed a grenade into the Republican presidential field.
The Indiana governor’s religious freedom law has ignited yet another controversial culture war debate that has Republican contenders juggling awkward questions about issues they would just as soon not touch.
This time around, the policy issue isn’t same-sex marriage — it’s about nondiscrimination laws and whether they should accompany Religious Freedom Restoration Acts like the one just passed in Indiana.
But regardless, Republicans are getting pummeled over gay rights issues of all sorts — and face the familiar dilemma of whether a conservative stance that makes for good politics in a GOP primary will hurt them in a general election.
A New York Times editorial called Indiana’s law a “cover for bigotry” and said “nobody is fooled” by conservatives’ misdirection as to the law’s purpose. Video of Rand Paul calling homosexuality a “behavior” surfaced on BuzzFeed. And a Democratic governor used the term “bigot” to describe Pence and by extension the potential 2016 candidates lining up behind him, who so far include Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry.
“There’s no rational discussion going on, ideological voters of all types only hear what they want to hear, and [candidates] have to be careful about what they are saying so as not to offend the base in the 15 seconds or 140 characters they might use to engage on the issue,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based GOP strategist who was once a crusader against gay marriage but has since moderated on the issue. “On the other hand, you don’t want to completely stake out a position that creates a problem for you in the general election.”