PHOENIX – When Arizona’s governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays on religious grounds, she exposed a fracture within the Republican Party between social conservatives and pro-business moderates. Democrats hope to exploit it ahead of midterm elections in November that will decide control of Congress.
Republicans are torn between the conservative base and centrists horrified by the legislation, which opponents called an excuse for outright discrimination against gays.
This week’s veto, along with a continuing series of court rulings against states’ bans on gay marriage, has left conservatives dispirited. Opponents of gay marriage are struggling to find their footing.
“It’s leading people to say, ‘We’re not sure where the Republican party is on something as basic as economic freedom,’” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, a Washington-based conservative group that argued the Arizona proposal was aimed simply at allowing people to run businesses as they saw fit. “There certainly is a risk, especially as you head into the midterm elections, when the turnout of your base is essential.”
Gay marriage is increasingly popular nationwide, and the Democratic Party says measures like the Arizona bill are like the laws that once disenfranchised blacks.
After Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto, sponsors of similar legislation in Ohio said they would withdraw their bill, and a Mississippi legislative panel proposed changes that would remove a key component of that state’s measure.
Democrats argued that the Republicans would pay a price for even considering such legislation.
“This bill should have never gone this far, and the fact that it did shows how far to the right the Republican Party has lurched,” said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It is yet another reminder of the Republican brand of intolerance.”
But Republican operatives expressed doubt that the issue will have much of an impact in the election. They also noted it was a Republican governor’s veto that kept the Arizona bill from becoming law.
“It’s tough to go after Republicans on this, because pretty much every Republican except those in the Arizona Legislature didn’t support this,” said Ross Hemminger co-executive director of GOProud, a Republican gay rights group.
Underscoring the Republicans’ uncomfortable position, neither the Arizona Republican Party nor the Republican National Committee was willing to comment Thursday.
A Pew Research Center survey last year found Republicans nationwide are evenly divided, 45 percent to 45, on whether homosexuality should be accepted. In contrast, more than two-thirds of Democrats and Independents said it should be accepted.
“I think those are issues that ultimately could galvanize a pretty big voting block to go out and get involved later in the year,” said Grant Woods, a Republican and former Arizona attorney general who is close to Brewer. “And, certainly if these same people don’t wake up on some of these basic issues of discrimination and equal protection, the time will come when they’ll be taken out of office.”
Democrats are battling public dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and his health care overhaul and could lose control of the U.S. Senate in November. But the Arizona legislation could boost them in at least the state’s congressional races.