I am not a political scientist nor the son of a political scientist. So feel free to take the following reflections with the appropriate grain of salt and not as the definitive analysis of last night’s election results. Having said that, I think it might be helpful to think about what the “Republican wave” means for social conservatives.
I am a social conservative, which for me means that I put a high value on public policies relating to the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, and religious liberty. These aren’t the only things I care about, but they are on the top shelf for me. What does last night mean for public policy on those issues? What does it mean for the party that is typically associated with advancing those issues?
Americans are still deeply divided on the issue of abortion, but they are still more pro-life than many reports would have you believe. Voters in Colorado and North Dakoda rejected measures that might have limited abortion at life’s earliest stages. But in Tennessee voters added language to the state constitution that reads, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.” Also, the attempt to defeat pro-life candidates through “war on women” rhetoric was a failure. On the life issue, perhaps the most significant thing that happened last night is that the Republicans have taken back control of the Senate. That means that there will be more margin for Republicans to oppose the appointment of federal judges who might rule in favor of abortion rights.
On the definition of marriage, I don’t think the needle moved very much. On the good side of the ledger, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina both ran explicitly pro-marriage campaigns, and both won. On the negative side, both of these were in the south and are probably not indicative of nationwide trends. I still think that legal gay marriage in all fifty states is a fait accompli at this point. It’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when.” And I get the feeling that the new Senate majority would like to move-on from that issue going forward. The seats that will be in play in 2016 do not favor Republicans. In two short years, an unfavorable electoral map will be a real challenge to the new majority. Senate Republicans are not likely to push any issue that they view as a loser, and right now opposing gay marriage is a loser for them. The most we can hope for from Senate Republicans at this point are rearguard movements, but nothing that would halt their overall retreat on the marriage issue. Voters who care about marriage would do well to stand up as these politicians are standing down.
In general, I think that Republicans are increasingly coming to the conclusion that pushing culture war is a loser for them. They may find some utility in it for arousing the base, but they do not see these issues as the winners that they used to be. That means that even religious liberty issues are likely not going to be defining issues for them. Yes, Senator Ted Cruz might speak up for the Houston pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed by an overreaching mayor. But he is an outlier. The mainstream has gone mainstream on social issues, and nothing that happened last night will change that.
In 2012, the Republican Party platform included language affirming life and a traditional definition of marriage. While the pro-life plank is likely to be unmoved, it is difficult to see the pro-marriage plank surviving 2016. No Republican wave can overcome the seismic shift in American attitudes on the marriage issue. And that means that the party is likely to descend into conflict with its social conservative base before and during the next election cycle. I did not see anything last night that would forestall that inevitable battle. For that reason, it is all the more important for social conservatives to hold the line. It is better to lose standing on principle than to win by surrendering principle. Even if some Republicans are putting their finger to the wind, we can’t. Let’s not give up on marriage.