Republicans' soul searching following the 2012 election could shortchange social conservatives, who say they're hardly to blame for the party's difficulties at the polls.
The snapshot analysis as for why Republican nominee Mitt Romney and a slew of downballot GOP candidates fell short on Nov. 6 has centered on changing demographics — an increasingly diverse electorate, but also softening views toward hot-button social issues.
Republicans have always likened their party to a three-legged stool, one leg representing economic conservatives, one representing national security conservatives, and one representing social conservatives — all acting in concert to support the party. And social conservatives are arguing that opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights, among other issues, are as intrinsic to the Republican Party’s identity as ever.
In their reading of the election, Mitt Romney’s strict focus on economic issues and a refusal to engage President Barack Obama on social issues helped fuel his loss to the Democratic incumbent.
“If you have a party that says not to talk about social issues, it’s going to be awfully hard to convince an electorate of why we should celebrate life,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the evangelical leader in Iowa who played an influential role in that state’s caucuses earlier this year.
To hear some conservative leaders tell their story, Romney erred in refusing to engage social issues forcefully enough. When the president endorsed same-sex marriage, Romney largely demurred; the GOP nominee largely left bread-and-butter social issues out of his stump speech, focusing almost exclusively on the economy — the top issue for voters.
"I think, clearly, the Republican Party didn’t win on the issue on which it invested a billion dollars," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony list, a women's anti-abortion group.
She argued, too, that it's difficult to blame the GOP's social conservatism for four losses among House Republicans who support abortion rights: Reps. Mary Bono Mack of California, Nan Hayworth of New York, Judy Biggert of Illinois, and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire. "My point is that everyone lost. Republican candidates didn’t lose because of their pro-life positions," she said.
But at the same time, Obama's campaign and Democrats pounded away at Romney's pledge to do away with federal support for Planned Parenthood. And Republicans gave their opponents additional fodder when they tried to counter an Obama administration regulation requiring religious employers to offer coverage for contraception with a more sweeping proposal allowing most employers to refuse covering any form of birth control. Compounding matters were the controversial comments made about rape by Republican senatorial candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.
"We have to get out of people's lives, get out of people's bedrooms, and we have to be a national party or else we are going to lose," outgoing Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, said on CNN following the election.
Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, speaking Nov. 7 on MSNBC, called Akin and Mourdock’s shortcomings “very disappointing,” saying, “I think that everybody knows that some of the comments that were made were wrong, and it cost us at the polls."
Moreover, national exit polls found that voters in 2012 favored allowing for abortion to be legal, 59 percent to 36 percent. Obama won supporters of abortion rights by 36 points and Romney won opponents of abortion right by 56 points.
Americans also narrowly favored same-sex marriage, 49 percent to 46 percent. Obama won proponents of gay and lesbian marriages by 48 points, and Romney won opponents of it by 49 points. If nothing else, those figures would seem to mark a sea change from the 2004 election, when 13 states overwhelmingly voted to ban same-sex marriage — a topic which President George W. Bush used to motivate his supporters that cycle.
But to social conservatives, the challenge going forward is not a question of moderating; they argue that to rip out their leg from under the GOP would be to cripple the party politically. Rather, they argue the question is whether the party is able to find a more articulate messenger of social concerns.
Dannenfelser argued that Texas Sen.-elect Ted Cruz and Indiana Governor-elect Mike Pence (an outgoing congressman) are primed to lead social conservatives.
She and Vander Plaats, who could play an out-sized role in the still-very-distant 2016 Iowa caucuses, both also mentioned Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as a leading voice on those issues.
To that end, in an interview with GQ magazine published Monday, Rubio argued that it was "unfair" to expect Republicans to stop voicing their opinions on social issues.
"There are a very significant number of Americans that feel very strongly about the issue of life, about the issue of marriage and are we saying that they should be silenced or not allowed to speak or voice their opinion?" he told the magazine. "There's a way to do that that is respectful and productive. There are things we'll always disagree on, but it doesn't mean we go to war over them or divide our country over them."
"I think Gov. Bobby Jindal is going to be a very compelling candidate in 2016, and he has some of that same conservative demeanor," Vander Plaats added of the Louisiana governor.
The Iowa conservative also said he thought that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whom Vander Plaats supported in 2008 but declined to run in 2012, might consider running again in 2016.