GOP Death Watch

Can a Mormon ex-Obama Appointee Who Kind of Likes Gays Win the GOP Presidential Nomination?

You would think that no one could possibly object to a photogenic former Republican governor of Utah as a GOP presidential candidate. But in today’s Bizarro-world of Republican politics, Jon Huntsman may actually be too liberal for the right-wing party base. It’s bad enough that he served in the Obama administration as ambassador to China, and that he’s a Mormon, a religion that many conservative Christians view as just this side of Islam in terms of theological credibility. But the coffin nail may be lavender-colored: Huntsman has gone so far as to endorse (gasp!) civil unions. And that’s coming back to haunt him.

Huntsman hasn’t formally declared his candidacy yet, but that’s not stopping the right wing of the party from questioning his credentials as a real conservative (i.e., a flat earther). Huntsman surprised his state and party when in 2009 he expressed his support for civil unions and for nondiscrimination protections for gays and lesbians. (Of course, he’s opposed to same-sex marriages.) Moreover, Huntsman seems genuinely comfortable with gay people. He and his wife, Mary, are close friends with Reed Cowan, a former Salt Lake City television reporter, and Cowan’s partner, Greg Abplanalp. When Cowan’s and Abplanalp’s son died suddently, the then-governor cleared his calendar to attend the funeral.

Despite the fact that in many respects Huntsman projects an image of a reasonable conservative–or more likely because of it–you might as well get your jam jars ready because once the primary and caucus voters are done, he’ll be toast. Potential rivals Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels all oppose civil unions and gay marriage and aren’t likely to hesitate calling Huntsman a weak sister for daring to treat the gays with a modicum of decency and respect.

“About 60 percent of the likely caucusgoers are social conservatives, and while that doesn’t mean those are their primary issues, they want their candidates to be good on those issues,” Doug Gross, a former chair of the Iowa GOP, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “An economic conservative will win it, but they have to be OK on the social issues as well.”

The irony is, as Nate Silver points out, that polls show that Huntsman’s positions on gay rights are within the GOP mainstream. Even Republican voters are becoming more comfortable with civil unions as a compromise position. The trend suggests, says Silver, that “only about 45 percent of the Republican electorate will be opposed to any form of legal recognition for gay couples by the time the first primaries take place in early 2012.” The problem is that the early primary calendar is tilted heavily toward states with a large religious right voting bloc, making it hard for Huntsman to gain traction at the start of the race.

Huntsman has other baggage,  working for Obama (aka, the destroyer of liberty) and supporting the stimulus package chief among them. Of course, Huntsman may just be positioning himself for a more serious run in 2016, assuming that the Republican party will implode in a welter of right-wing paranoia in the meantime. Then again, it hasn’t happened yet.

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