Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and America’s new culture war

Updated 8:51 PM EDT, Wed April 1, 2015
(CNN) —  

Mike Pence is the first victim of America’s new culture war.

The Republican governor of Indiana thought he was doing what 19 other states and the federal government had done – without inciting national controversy – by signing a new religious freedom law. When charges that the law opens doors to discrimination against gays and lesbians came, his technical arguments about what is and isn’t allowed under the law were feeble in the face of outrage.

Pence found himself confronting a new political reality in a country where battles over gay rights now appear to have a clear winner.

READ: Pence says he wasn’t expecting backlash

And by signing a law that Republicans had thought offered sturdier ground – religious liberty – than the same-sex marriage debate they’re close to losing, Pence brought on the force of a fully realigned coalition. Instead of remaining in a tense partnership with social conservatives, fiscally focused Republicans and businesses that now see opposing gay rights as far too costly broke away from their traditional GOP allies and flatly rejected Indiana’s law.

They’d also planted an important flag, making clear that they’d come to view the legislation as a new, coded proxy for the same old issue.

That such a view hardened so quickly only further infuriated conservatives who feel their religious freedom is under assault. And it raised the stakes for Republican presidential contenders who now must articulate a more effective version of his argument.

The imbroglio has wounded Pence, a sometimes-mentioned potential White House aspirant. More important, though, is that the 2016 Republican field was drawn into the fight. And they sided with Pence.

They had little choice: A competitive primary means Republican candidates must win over a much more socially conservative set of voters before they can even begin courting a more diverse general electorate.

That, polling data suggests, could be a ticking time bomb that hurts the party in a general election.

SEE: Arkansas poised to adopt religious freedom law

“We’re headed to the point where a political candidate who is perceived as anti-gay at the presidential level will never connect with people under 30 years old,” GOP pollster Whit Ayers said Tuesday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

The Indiana debate revealed that the gay rights movement has a powerful set of allies – all strong enough to sway the voting public.

The sports world, historically reticent to wade into politics, strongly opposed Pence’s decision to sign the law. The NFL, NBA and even NASCAR lambasted it. Nike called it “discriminatory.” But the most potent condemnation came from the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis and is set to host its men’s basketball Final Four there this week.

Tech giants like Apple, Yelp and Salesforce also sided with pro-LGBT critics of Indiana’s law. Their positions were no surprise. But Eli Lilly, Levis and Walmart also waded into the debate, with the retailer training its fire on Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, whose state legislature on Monday sent him a bill mirroring Indiana’s.

Walmart’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, said the bill “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

The comment, from the state’s most important business, was a warning shot at the 14 others considering similar proposals this year that advancing them will come at a cost.

Pence has since vacillated on the law, alternating between supporting it, saying it should be “fixed” and blasting a media that he says has mischaracterized the whole thing.

RELATED: Indiana law reveals GOP’s challenge

First Pence called Indianapolis Star editorial writer Tim Swarens on Saturday to say he wanted lawmakers to clarify it. Then he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that the law wouldn’t be changed. On Tuesday, he called a press conference to say he wants it to be “fixed” so it’s clear businesses like Christian florists, bakers and photographers can’t refuse to serve a same-sex wedding.

Then on Tuesday night, Pence said on Sean Hannity’s radio show: “I stand by this law. The law doesn’t need to be fixed.”

The wreckage around Pence was easy to see. The buzz around his potential White House run was gone. His 2012 Democratic opponent, John Gregg, was chirping to anyone who would listen that he’s now even more likely to take another shot at Pence in 2016. Evan Bayh, the former Indiana governor and senator and the only Democrat whose popularity can rival Pence’s among Hoosiers, laid into the governor in an interview with The Huffington Post, saying the Republican ought to hire a lawyer to help him understand what he’d signed.

If his way of handling the debate was the wrong one – is there a better way to sell his position?

Bob Vander Plaats, a socially conservative power broker in the Iowa caucuses, said Republican candidates will need to find one because “religious liberty is going to be a key issue in the 2016 race.”

“I think it’s always important how you message things without abandoning or violating your principles. All of us understand that,” Vander Plaats said in an interview.

But with the Supreme Court set to rule on same-sex marriage in June, he said, “what’s going to happen is religious liberty, the issue of marriage and the role of the courts are going to be three of the biggest issues not only in the primary election but in the general election because they are center stage.”

Several 2016 candidates – including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson and Scott Walker – offered support for religious freedom laws.

Their challenge is selling it beyond their conservative base.

Rubio looked more at ease than Pence during an appearance on Fox News Monday night. He jabbed at Pence slightly only by saying he thought the questions ABC’s Stephanopoulos asked were fair – and then he admitted what Pence would not.

“Nobody is saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation. I think that’s a consensus view in America,” Rubio said. “The flip side is, should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God?”

Cruz, meanwhile, portrayed Indiana as the new front in a cultural battle.

“Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties,” he said. “I’m proud to stand with Mike, and I urge Americans to do the same.”

But the new alignment of the business and sports world could push voters more focused on fiscal issues and national security away from the Republican Party. That, Ayers said, is why GOP contenders who hope to be viable in a general election must adopt “a tone and an attitude of inclusion and acceptance.”