COLUMBUS, Ga. — For Republicans and social issues such as same-sex marriage, this is the silent spring.
While most party loyalists remain supporters of traditional marriage and gun rights and oppose most abortions, they also are engaged in campaigns in crucial states where polls are clear: The economy is by far the issue that’s most on voters’ minds.
“It’s nothing more than the fact that the economy has people more concerned,” Carter Wrenn, a veteran North Carolina political strategist, said of the emphasis on money and job issues.
But stressing often-polarizing social issues also carries substantial risk. In 2010 and 2012, Republicans who were popular with the conservative base but too extreme for the general electorate lost at least five Senate races they arguably could have won.
This time, the party is being more pragmatic. Republican leaders are urging candidates to adopt a gentler tone. And in the case of same-sex marriage, public attitudes are changing rapidly, particularly among younger voters.
This year’s turn away from social issues is apparent in states with closely watched Senate races. These are key battlegrounds, since Republicans need a net gain of six seats to seize control of the Senate.
In Arkansas, for example, Republicans have a great shot at winning the seat of Sen. Mark Pryor, one of the nation’s most vulnerable Democrats. And the economy and health care are the keys. Social issues didn’t crack the top five priorities in an Arkansas Poll late last year.
In Louisiana, where Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu faces a difficult re-election, few social issues are being debated. “Republicans right now believe the health care issue is big enough and strong enough to carry the election,” said Kirby Goidel, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University.
Even in Republican primaries, social issues are less important.
In Mississippi, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran faces a tough renomination challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a tea party favorite. But the emphasis is largely on economic and health care issues. An early sign of the trend there: Voters in 2011 soundly defeated a ballot initiative that said life begins at conception.
“That was the biggest wake-up call for those kinds of issues I’ve seen,” veteran Mississippi political analyst Marty Wiseman said. “What Republicans are probably going to tell you now is that they found out they were alienating more women than drawing them to their side.”
Republicans maintain they’re simply talking about what people want to discuss. “Good candidates spend their time talking about issues that voters care about most, which according to survey after survey means improving the economy, creating jobs and restoring honesty, fairness and trust in Washington,” said Brook Hougesen, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman.
Georgia is a test case of what could work this year. The May 20 Republican Senate primary is a free-for-all featuring well-known candidates who are looking for a way to break out. None see social issues as a path to victory, and the winner is likely to face centrist Democrat Michelle Nunn in the fall.
“All these other issues pale in comparison to the government being out of control,” said Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who’s running for the seat.
Broun boasts in his campaign fliers that one of his legislative tests is whether something is right and moral. But when he visited the Republican Women of Muscogee-Harris County last week, he didn’t bring up social issues. And no one asked.
“They are important as far as our society is concerned,” he explained later, “but the most important issue is the loss of economic freedom.”
His rivals also rarely discuss social issues.
Rep. Jack Kingston spoke to a Rotary Club luncheon in LaGrange last week, and took 10 questions. None concerned social issues.
At a focus group of nine Republican activists in Macon organized by McClatchy, such issues rarely came up.
Some do push to get such matters into the political dialogue. Virginia Galloway, the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Georgia-based regional field director, challenged the notion that social issues are fading from the debate.
“The reason we have economic problems is that we have a breakdown of character in this nation,” she said.
She has a difficult task.
A Pew Research Center poll last month found 54 percent of Americans favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, up from 43 percent just before the last midterm election, in 2010.
Six out of 10 Republicans and Republican leaners under 30 approved of same-sex marriage, according to Pew, and only 18 percent said gays raising children was bad for society. Fifty-six percent thought it didn’t make much difference.
Older people are also becoming more accepting. Gay issues, said Regina Liparoto, a Manchester, Ga., talk show host, just weren’t discussed when she was growing up in the 1970s. That’s meant a quick education, and a realization that gays and lesbians should be accepted.
“How can you ask someone to not accept a family member of someone you love?” she asked.
That attitude was apparent throughout the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in the suburbs of Washington.
GOProud, a group of gay and straight conservatives, came as a guest after being turned down in the past. And the audience cheered heartily when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a favorite of the party’s moderate wing who wasn’t invited to the CPAC conference last year, said of Democrats that “they’re the party of intolerance, not us,” because they have little use for abortion-rights opponents.
In the general election campaign, Democrats will try to paint Republicans as too narrow-minded, but Republicans say they’re ready. The word is out: the fewer harsh words about divisive social issues, the better.
Anyway, said Republicans, they have another way of changing the culture. “Elect good, moral people,” said Jenny Eckman, a Columbus, Ga., activist, “and they’ll vote the moral way.”