The Republican right/far-right civil war is the guiding narrative for the party in 2014. So it's fitting that the first big skirmish of the year — Arizona's "religious freedom" bill — should have been part of that bigger war. In this case, the establishment won.
On Wednesday night, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed her state's version of the legislation, which would have allowed businesses to refuse services to gay couples on religious grounds. Similar legislation has cropped up in other red states, including Kansas, South Dakota, Idaho, and Mississippi, and even in more-moderate Ohio. As Brewer considered whether or not to kill the bill, Republicans of all stripes weighed in, including a number of prominent party leaders. Both of Arizona's senators, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich all got on Twitter to offer their advice: kill it. And so it was killed.
As The New York Times reports, those leaders were speaking partly on behalf of the constituency most freaked out at the prospect of the bill becoming law: businesses. A number of local and national companies expressed concern about its passage, including the Super Bowl committee. But the politicians were also hoping to hold off another front in the war splitting the party. The Times:
The decision by members of the Republican establishment to join gay activists in opposing the bill reflected the alarm the Arizona battle stirred among party leaders, who worried about identifying their party with polarizing social issues at a time when Republicans see the prospect of big gains in Congressional elections on economic issues.
There's a lot in that paragraph. Part of the concern expressed in it goes back to the 2010 and 2012 elections, in which a surging Tea Party and a complacent establishment resulted in extreme candidates running for — and losing — Senate seats that the Republicans could have picked up. The broader civil war, though, broke out in the wake of the government shutdown, pitting the pro-business Republican right against the my-way-or-the-highway extreme right. The shutdown's tension focused on the debt ceiling, in which conservatives threatened to allow the government to default on its debt in the mistaken belief that it would slow government spending. That was the point at which the establishment began to fight back.
Which is why these state ballot fights, which explicitly force business into opposition with conservatives, is such a potent indicator. Public Policy Polling found that 70 percent of Arizona residents agree with Brewer's veto — in a fairly conservative state. The Tea Party/social conservative overlap isn't complete, but it's significant, and it's a minority that's demonstrated it has the energy and clout to throw up roadblocks.
Dylan Scott at Talking Points Memo thinks that Arizona is a "high water mark" in the effort to codify "religious freedom" laws. He notes that the bill in Kansas was pulled, and those in other states are stalled. Scott credits the business community with introducing the friction, citing the example of its involvement in Georgia. "We feel strongly that the laws of our nation and state already adequately protect the concept of religious freedom that this country was founded on," the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.
But again, this is merely one battle in the fight between Republican moderates and the far right. The Public Religion Research Institute released data this week showing how views on gay marriage have evolved. The graph at right shows how opinion has changed among the political parties since 2003. Republicans still trail significantly, opposing gay marriage 2-to-1. That's in part because the party has more members who fit into other groups that strongly oppose same-sex marriage: older Americans (37 percent of whom support it) and white evangelical Protestants (69 percent of whom oppose it). (That latter group engaged in an energetic debate this week over whether Jesus himself would bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.) Those groups are also core constituencies of the vocal, still-potent activist arm of the far-right.
As long as those groups remain vocal and potent, politicians will try to appeal to them. Nelson Warfield, a political advisor to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, predicted that this particular issue wouldn't go away over the short term.
“You can bet your last dollar somebody will run on it for the nomination next time,” he said, referring to the Republican presidential battle of 2016. “But the issue was framed in the worst possible way for those people who are supporters of the bill,” he said. “It became about human rights and human dignity and not religious conscience. As soon as it shifted from a debate about religious conscience to a respect for human dignity, it was a loser.”
Sure enough, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who appears to be considering a run in 2016, explicitly called for "religious freedom" legislation earlier this month. If other bills in other places can better toe the perceived line between that perceived freedom and discrimination, they will be introduced and used to mobilize support. Strongly conservative politicians like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are building careers on exhorting the base to action, and seeing positive results. If the concerns of the business community didn't keep Cruz and others from wanting to tank the American economy by refusing to increase the debt ceiling, why would they keep politicians from harming city economies?
The establishment won a battle this week; it's making good progress in the vicious battles over the Republican primaries this year. But the war that's splitting the party isn't over. So expect more of these fights.