Embracing embattled Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis is a surefire way to wound a presidential campaign.
Republicans Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz on Tuesday visited Davis, just as she was released from jail after five days because she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Huckabee and Cruz undoubtedly will solidify their already-strong bond with Christian conservatives. But their public displays of unity are unlikely to jolt their barely-on-the-radar presidential campaigns.
Rushing to the scene of such incidents is historically full of political peril. “It never works,” said David Woodard, a Republican consultant in Clemson, S.C.
This year, there’s an extra hurdle. Usually such matters allow candidates to stand out, at least for a news cycle or two.
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With 17 Republicans vying for the party’s presidential nomination this year, no man or woman is an island.
“Everyone is looking for a way to break out of the pack, but any stand someone takes this time is rarely taken alone,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg-Gonzales Report.
Davis, the Rowan County clerk, was jailed Thursday. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and a Baptist minister, has close ties to the evangelical community. His website urged supporters to “Free Kim Davis Now,” arguing people should have the right to practice their beliefs without government intervention. Cruz issued a statement on the day Davis was jailed, saying, “Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny.”
Religious freedom has been a strong rallying cry for Republican conservatives this year, but not much of a political boon.
An uproar in the spring ended any hopes that Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, had of seeking the presidency.
Pence was a rising Republican star. Then he signed his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protecting companies and individuals from government actions that would substantially burden religious practices.
Critics contended the law was a legal license to discriminate. Businesses threatened to boycott the state. Pressure was intense, and within days, the law was changed.
Republican presidential candidates at the time supported the original law, so no one stood out as the religious freedom champion. But the controversy gave party officials new reasons to worry.
Republican leaders have tried for years to erase the party’s intolerant image. A 2013 state of the party report found, “We do need to make sure young people do not see the party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view,” and the Republican National Committee has made strong efforts to be more inclusive.
Trouble is, while polls have consistently shown strong support for same-sex marriage, the idea is not overwhelmingly popular with Republicans. And presidential front-runner Donald Trump leaped to the top of the polls after railing against undocumented immigrants, including insulting Mexicans.
Concerns about an intolerant image haven’t stopped some Republicans from racing to the scene of incidents that could give them a spotlight.
In June, controversy erupted over whether the Confederate battle flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds after Dylann Roof, who was pictured on his website embracing the flag, was charged with killing nine black churchgoers in Columbia.
Several Republican presidential candidates at first insisted it was a state’s rights issue, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Cruz. Huckabee said voters don’t want candidates offering their opinions on every “little issue in all 50 states.”
None got a boost with those views, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley took Republicans off the hook by firmly declaring the flag must be removed from the statehouse grounds.
Now comes the Davis uproar. Huckabee and Cruz are vying with a host of others for the evangelical vote, a crucial bloc in Iowa, site of the nation’s first caucus Feb. 1. So far, Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are doing well with the Christian right.
Supporters who gathered Tuesday to back Davis were pleased at the candidates who were clearly on their side.
Coleman Colston of Henry County, Ky., was waving two signs – one in support of Davis and one criticizing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway for not “doing his job.” Colston said he was very happy to see Cruz and Huckabee at the rally.
“I wish they all were here. Yes I do,” Colston said. “Every politician should be here. Every freedom-loving American should be here.”
And Republican are creating another problem for themselves, because the Supreme Court in June ruled for same-sex marriage, and majorities in recent polls have consistently supported it.
In the long run, what voters prize most is good judgment about the issues that most affect their lives, and racing to the scene of the latest controversy “could be seen as opportunistic,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion Research in New York.
Social issues such as same-sex marriage are not high on their list. Even among Republicans, the McClatchy-Marist poll found in July that only 12 percent of party voters saw social issues as most important.
Domestic issues such as health care and the economy topped the list, and people have repeatedly signaled they want a president who weighs options and makes sound decisions. Not someone who eagerly hustles to the scene of the day’s big news event.
Doing so, said Woodard, “is usually impulsive and just not well thought out.”