Opinion

Will the GOP sideline social conservatives in 2014?

Leading Republicans are calling on the party to focus on economic issues. But that doesn't mean the conservative base will be left behind.

It's no secret that Republicans are in search of a sweet spot in today's political environment that will allow them to expand their base while not diluting their core values. The disappointing results from the 2012 election highlighted the difficulties in determining the correct path to electoral success. Stumbles on the campaign trail dogged Republicans in the both the presidential contest (Mitt Romney's discussion of the "47 percent," for example) and congressional races (gaffes from Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock on abortion that cost the GOP two Senate races it should have won).

Ever since, the GOP has tried mightily to retool its message on both economics and social issues. House Budget chairman and former Romney running mate Paul Ryan (Wis.) has attempted to open a dialogue on poverty issues, using broad concepts from Jack Kemp to fashion a populist fiscal conservatism. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has used school choice and his record on educational reform to push the Republican Party message in a similar direction. Both want Republican policy to promote an end to crony capitalism and Washington-centric economics.

As for social conservatism, many in the GOP would like to run away from it, which isn't exactly a new phenomenon. After the big losses in 2006 and 2008, the party divided on whether social conservatism should be the focus of the Republican Party at all. Some argued that this strategy had great success in the 1980s, but that it wouldn't work with younger voters.

They have a point. A recent Pew study shows that millennial voters are less likely to have a political affiliation or profess a religious preference than any generation of voters in the quarter-century of Pew polling on these subjects. The data shows that millennials are more interested in getting a job, and don't want government solutions to cultural issues. Not only do they tend toward libertarian positions on marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, they are also less likely themselves to be married at all than other age-demographic groups were at the same age. Traditionalist approaches won't appeal to newer voters, Republicans worry.

That has some conservatives calling once again for an emphasis on fiscal conservatism, while adopting a more laissez-faire approach on social issues. At a New Hampshire conference sponsored by Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity, the message was inclusion rather than ideological purity, according to BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins. The avoidance of previously top-priority issues like abortion or same-sex marriage showed "just how marginalized the religious right has become within the Republican Party," Coppins wrote. When asked about those issues, "the replies that came back were feeble and vague," Coppins added, "and studded with rhetoric about the importance of big-tent Republicanism."

Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), one of the more libertarian of the leading Republican Young Turks, declared himself a social conservative. But he added, "I'm also a believer that a lot of the way our country was founded was upon federalism." Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) was more vocal in his demand for supporting a "culture of life," but also extolled federalism on the marriage question. Yahoo's Chris Moody noted that even Mike Huckabee, long a champion of social conservatism within the party, called for a wider GOP tent.

"There's room in the party for people to have different viewpoints, there always has. I don't know why we would suddenly have this moment where we would start acting as if there's only a few viewpoints that are valid," Huckabee said. "As far as in the general election, I think it's nonsense that people would vote against someone because of an issue that a president would probably not have a lot of input on anyway."

Well, don't necessarily call social conservatism dead on these counts. First, the conference took place in New Hampshire, not exactly a hotbed for social conservatism in the best of times for the Right, and its sponsors tend to favor economic issues over social ones anyway. Furthermore, Huckabee's argument doesn't go as far as either Coppins or Moody suggests. Huckabee didn't argue to put social conservatism on ice as much as he urged the GOP to prioritize economics. It wasn't that long ago that Huckabee argued that "our greatest trouble will be if we turn our backs on God" rather than on taxes or corruption.

In fact, it was just a week ago — at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Spring Kickoff in Waukee. At this event in another critical 2016 primary state, the former Arkansas governor did emphasize a need to oppose "cronyism that exists between the powers of Washington and the powers of Wall Street," but didn't exactly stay silent on same-sex marriage either. Rejecting calls that momentum on this issue had eluded the GOP, Huckabee insisted that Republicans still needed to stick to their guns despite criticisms that they were on the wrong side of history. "This is the right side of the Bible," Huckabee said, "and unless God rewrites it, edits it, and sends it down with his signature on it, it's not my book to change."

Much of the pivot away from social conservatism in New Hampshire comes from tailoring a message to a specific audience. Republican candidates won't campaign in Iowa the way they do in New Hampshire, and will emphasize different parts of the GOP platform depending on whether they are speaking to a fiscal-policy conference or the Values Voters Summit.

Moody and Coppins are right about "big tent politics," but not about what it means for social conservatives. Social issues may not dominate the 2014 midterms or the 2016 race, but that doesn't mean they won't play any role. It does mean that party leaders will still have to understand and harness the movement's passion, even if this particular cycle and the next offer a heavier emphasis on economics and health care reform. And it means that those who seek to win elections will have to learn to channel all the various currents within the party, while communicating the broader platform effectively, especially to younger voters.

Can Republicans pull this off? It depends on finding a political candidate with skill and a resume of success in uniting the party's factions — as it always has. Parties do not win elections through subtraction and division. And by rejecting its energetic social-conservative base, the GOP would be doing just that.

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