GOP debate on social issues likely to emerge

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This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

As the leader of the Tea Party Express, Amy Kremer has spent the better part of the last three years preaching a simple message to establishment Republicans: Emphasizing divisive social issues will lead the GOP to electoral doom.

Kremer and her ilk by and large have been satisfied, as Republican candidates for the most part focused on limited government and free-market principles throughout the 2010 midterms, the 2012 nominating contest and the general election.

But as conservatives continue to dress their wounds from last Tuesday's losses and face an extended period of self-analysis and soul-searching, Kremer points to her own 22-year-old daughter as a warning to anyone who might ignore those previous admonishments.

"My daughter's a conservative and has a lot of friends who are conservatives, and they're not social conservatives," Kremer said. "Obviously, there are groups of kids who are social conservatives, but I've been in meetings where they're like, 'This is not the stuff that we're concerned about.' We need to figure out how to bring everybody together."

While the Tea Party movement's future strength remains an open question, the increasing impact of young voters on national elections is indisputable. According to exit polls, 18-to-29-year-olds composed 17 percent of the electorate in 2004, 18 percent in 2008, and 19 percent in 2012.

Within the GOP, a preponderance of empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that the next generation of Republicans is both more splintered and less-focused on social issues than are their older ideological brethren.

Meanwhile, issues like same-sex marriage, the war on drugs, and abortion have played a significant role in the Democratic Party's success at motivating younger independents and Democratic-leaning voters to turn out at the polls.

And the broader challenge for the Republican Party isn't simply generational, as dramatic shifts on social issues at the statewide level have shown.

As recently as 2004, constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage passed in all 11 states in which they appeared on the ballot. Ohio's ballot measure, which defined marriage as "only a union between one man and one woman," passed with 62 percent of the vote that year. What's more, it was credited widely for driving up turnout among social conservatives and helping deliver the decisive state for George W. Bush.

Four years later, voters in deep-blue California approved Proposition 8, making the Democratic stronghold the latest and largest state to approve an amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Indeed, before last Tuesday, every statewide ballot initiative seeking to ban same-sex marriage had passed, while each Election Day measure aimed at legalizing it had failed.

But this year voters orchestrated a 180-degree turn on the issue, passing the first ballot-driven measures to approve same-sex marriage in Maryland, Washington state, and Maine, and rejecting a constitutional amendment that would have banned it in Minnesota.

The results in each state were propelled by 18-to-29-year-old voters, who overwhelmingly cast their ballots in support of same-sex marriage by roughly a 2-to-1 margin in each state, exit polls showed.

Also on Tuesday, Colorado and Washington became the first two states where voters passed measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and they did so by double-digit margins in each case. A more radical measure that would have initiated a form of state sponsorship of recreational marijuana was rejected in Oregon -- though it was supported by a majority of younger voters there.

Writing in the Washington Post on Tuesday, conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin laid down her own marker in the looming debate among right-leaning opinion-makers, asserting that topics like same-sex marriage are not "equally essential to conservatism" as are other issues.

"If marital infidelity and divorce aren't part of any conservative national political agenda, gay marriage need not be," Rubin wrote. "No tenant of modern conservatism obligates politicians to insist on undoing a social consensus on the expansion of marriage freely arrived at by voters."

On the other hand, social conservatives who remain skeptical that a true sea change is at hand on "values" issues surely will note that President Obama carried each of the four states where voters came down in favor of same-sex marriage and that all of them have traditionally held electorates well to the left of the nation as a whole.

Why, they argue, should the bloc once so instrumental in ushering in the age of Reagan retreat from principles that were central tenets of the GOP's golden age of electoral success?

"Republican elites will soon join liberal commentators in declaring that the party must moderate on social issues or risk consigning itself to permanent minority status," Gary Bauer, one of the evangelical right's most prominent voices, wrote Monday in Human Events. "But while the GOP would benefit from a period of reflection and self-examination, and while the party does need to adjust how it communicates with voters on social issues, its core values cannot change."

Though same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana may continue to be peripheral issues in national races, abortion is sure to remain a central one.

The Obama campaign and allied groups hammered Mitt Romney in key swing states over the Republican nominee's anti-abortion-rights stance, and wildly off-key remarks made by GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana helped propel their opponents to victory in those Republican-leaning states.

Additionally, majorities of voters in what were widely considered the two most critical swing states of the presidential race -- Ohio (56 percent) and Virginia (63 percent) -- told exit pollsters that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Given that opposition to abortion will likely remain a core component of the GOP's identity, more Republican leaders are arguing that the party must alter the tone, rather than the content, of its messaging on the subject.

"And if another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue," former George W. Bush adviser Karen Hughes wrote in Politico. "The college-age daughters of many of my friends voted for Obama because they were completely turned off by Neanderthal comments like the suggestion of 'legitimate rape.' "

Each of the five potential GOP contenders most frequently mentioned in hyper-early bouts of 2016 presidential speculation (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, and Paul Ryan) is a male who opposes abortion rights in most cases. The eventual nominee will have to balance standing by a central principle of the party without turning off swing voters who favor abortion rights.

For the time being, at least, the social issues that have long bound Republicans together seem likely to be among the most hotly debated within the GOP's ranks.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.