Social Outcasts

Republican candidates are retreating from debates on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.

In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is much more eager than her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, to discuss social issues.  

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call.

One month before the midterms, the general election debates are underway. Aiming at a broad electorate, candidates are looking for issues where the public agrees with them and dodging issues where they might lose votes. Democrats aren’t talking much about President Obama, and nobody’s gloating about the economy. But on social issues, the tide of cowardice is running the other way: Republicans are mumbling, cringing, and ducking. They don’t want the election to be about these issues, even in red states.

Let’s take a look at some recent encounters. Watch the Democrats attack and the Republicans squirm.

Virginia, July 26. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner faced Republican challenger Ed Gillespie in their first debate. The moderator asked about same-sex marriage. Gillespie said that while he preferred the one-man-one-woman formula, “It’s not my role to legislate on it, because I do believe that the appropriate venue for it is the state.” Warner gave a more direct answer: “I support marriage equality.” Then Warner added:

On women’s reproductive health issues, we have very different views. He would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. He supports a personhood amendment that … would ban certain forms of contraception. … I trust the women of Virginia. I think the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby got it wrong. I don’t think a for-profit corporation ought to be able to interfere in an employee’s health care choices. … Whether it’s marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights, [we have] very large differences between the two candidates.

Gillespie refused to engage. He pleaded for privacy (“My religious views, really, Senator, should not be at issue”), blurred the candidates’ differences on birth control (“I believe actually we should make contraceptives easier to obtain”), and deflected questions about Roe. “There’s not going to be a vote to overturn Roe,” said Gillespie. “That’s a Supreme Court decision. I’m running for the United States Senate.”

North Carolina, Sept. 3. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, were asked whether they agreed with the Hobby Lobby decision. Tillis, like Gillespie, repositioned himself as a contraceptive advocate: “Well, first, I believe that contraception should be available probably more broadly than it is.” He sidestepped Hobby Lobby (claiming it “was not about contraception”) and said the pill should be available over the counter. Hagan pressed the issue (“I disagree with the Hobby Lobby decision; Speaker Tillis agrees with it”) and ripped Tillis for defunding Planned Parenthood. So Tillis stepped back again. “Let’s find ways to broaden access and lower the cost [of] contraception,” he suggested. Later, he fawned over birth control pills (“they’re safe, they’re effective”) and called for easier access to them so that women would have “more choices.”

Arizona, Sept. 10. In their first gubernatorial debate, Democrat Fred DuVal and Republican Doug Ducey were asked where they stood on gay marriage. DuVal pounced before the question was even finished. “Yes. I favor marriage equality,” he said. “It is high time that we end this discrimination.” Ducey weaseled out. “I’m supportive of traditional marriage,” he acknowledged, but “on an issue like this, a governor doesn’t make the decision. This decision is decided by the people.”

Texas, Sept. 19. The nominees for governor, Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis, were asked for their views on abortion regulation. Davis, a state senator, cited her filibuster of an anti-abortion bill: “I stood on the Senate floor for 13 hours to assure that this most private of decisions could be made by women.” She said Abbott would ban abortion even in cases of rape. Abbott chose not to talk about legislation. Instead, he spoke of “a culture of life” and told viewers, “Texas is ensuring that we protect more life and do a better job of protecting the health care of women by providing that women still have five months to make a very difficult decision.” Only after that point, said Abbott, did the state have “an interest in protecting innocent life.” He sounded as though he were reading from Roe.

Colorado, Sept. 23. In the state’s 6th Congressional District, Democrat Andrew Romanoff debated Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. Romanoff made an aggressive pitch for “reproductive rights” and blasted Coffman’s positions on Hobby Lobby and abortion law. Coffman claimed that he supported Title X family planning funds and opposed a personhood amendment. When Coffman was asked to name Romanoff’s biggest falsehood, he cited “the ad that I’m opposed to birth control.”

Later, the candidates were invited to pose questions. Romanoff asked Coffman, “What puts you in a better position than the women of this district … to decide what to do with their bodies?” Coffman demurred: “I’m pro-life, but I believe that there ought to be exceptions. And I did vote for legislation, a bill in the Congress, that after 20 weeks, certainly, a woman could decide during that span of time. And after that, there would be exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.” That answer, like Abbott’s, smacked of Roe.

Coffman also ducked gay marriage. When the candidates were asked about it, Romanoff gave a flat yes. Coffman punted: “I believe that marriage is between a man and woman, but it’s ultimately going to be up to the voters of Colorado to make that decision. I will respect as a member of Congress whatever decision that they make, and represent that view in the Congress.”

Iowa, Sept. 28. In the U.S. Senate race, Republican Joni Ernst debated Democrat Bruce Braley. The candidates were asked what legislation they would pursue on abortion or contraception. Braley declared himself pro-choice and said Ernst had supported a state constitutional amendment that would have banned many forms of birth control. Ernst said she was pro-life, but she passed this off as a subjective matter: “It is a very, very personal issue.” She embraced birth control (“I will always stand with our women on affordable access to contraception”) and insisted that her amendment (which would have protected the “right to life of every person at any stage of development”) was purely symbolic: “That amendment is simply a statement that I support life.”

Braley tried to pin her down. Citing an Iowa newspaper’s independent fact check, he said the Ernst-backed amendment would have prohibited some contraceptives and would have led to prosecution of doctors. Ernst said that wasn’t true: “That is only if legislation would be passed. This amendment, again, was a statement of life.” Having portrayed the amendment as a genuine policy proposal in the Republican primary, Ernst is now dismissing it as mere sentiment in the general election.

Massachusetts, Sept. 29. Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker shared a gubernatorial debate with three independent candidates. When one of the independents complained that “we are promoting sexual perversion to children in the public schools,” Baker rebuked him. “That, that was kind of a veiled reference, I think, to gay people,” said the GOP nominee. “And as the brother of a gay man who lives and is married in Massachusetts, I just want you to know that I found that kind of offensive.”

You can brush off Baker as an outlier, since Obama got 61 percent of the vote in Massachusetts two years ago. But you can’t make that excuse in Texas (where Obama got 41 percent), Arizona (45 percent), North Carolina (48 percent), Virginia (51 percent), Iowa (52 percent), or Coffman’s Colorado district (52 percent). These are purple and red states. Five of these six states approved ballot measures against gay marriage within the last decade. The most recent was two years ago. Now you can’t even get a clear answer from Republican nominees in these states, not just about marriage, but about birth control or abortion.

In other states where general election debates have been held—Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska—Democrats haven’t brought up these issues, but Republicans haven’t, either. It’s true that Republicans are counting on dissatisfaction with the economy, Obamacare, and other domestic issues to carry them through the election. But the GOP used to be confident about social issues as a winner or a wash, particularly in midterms. No more.

Have Republicans surrendered on social issues? Far from it. Ernst, Tillis, and others are under fire precisely because they’ve waded into the policy fights. But they’ve lost faith that those fights can be defended at election time. If the midterms vindicate that anxiety, a retreat on policy will follow.