DES MOINES, Iowa -- Many topics animated GOP officials, activists and operatives that gathered at Saturday's Iowa Freedom Summit, which marked the unofficial start of the 2016 presidential primary.
But an issue that once faced vehement opposition within the party -- gay marriage -- remained conspicuously absent from the lips of many speakers who took the stage, demonstrating how dramatically politics around the issue has shifted in just a few years.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) denounced the president's executive actions on immigration and the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional overreach. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich excoriated the State Department for failing to curb global terror. And Iowa's newest Republican senator, Joni Ernst, urged Washington to balance the budget, cut spending and lower taxes, all proposals that resonated with the audience. Yet most speakers steered away from social issues near and dear to many Iowa evangelicals.
The silence was even more acute among several potential Republican presidential contenders, who came to Iowa in hopes of winning over future caucus voters. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who once campaigned for a gay marriage ban, stuck to telling his personal story in a rousing speech that was warmly received at the summit. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz railed against "EPA locusts" and called for the abolishment of the IRS. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry urged the administration to secure the border. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina blasted Hillary Clinton and her record on Libya.
The first and only mention of gay marriage came near the end of the event, when Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the host of the summit, introduced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie by noting that he vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in April. A decision is expected in June, by which time the GOP presidential primary is expected to be in full swing as many candidates come off the sidelines. If the court does ultimately rule against gay marriage bans, Republican officials said, presidential contenders may gain additional support from conservatives going into the 2016 election.
"It might have an effect of pouring more energy into our base," Iowa GOP party chair Jeff Kaufmann told The Huffington Post. Kaufmann predicted that, in the long term, Republicans would seek judicial reform "in terms of amending the Constitution."
One influential voice among social conservatives, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, had a different view. He recently said that states can have the final say on gay marriage regardless of what the Supreme Court says, an argument hewing awfully close to the theory of nullification. He echoed those remarks again on Saturday.
“Nobody argues that [Abraham] Lincoln should have abided by Dred Scott," he said, in reference to the infamous 1857 Supreme Court decision that denied African-American slaves the right to sue for their freedom.
Newly elected Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), who addressed the gathering earlier in the day, agreed that the matter was best left up to the states.
"Every state should have that vote and put it to their legislatures. I’m a will-of-the-people guy. I’m all for it, each state putting it to a vote of the people," he told the HuffPost.
Others, however, sounded more resigned.
Retired neurosurgeon and potential 2016 contender Ben Carson, who recently warned that the marriage equality movement would make it “open season on Christians," said that he didn't believe the fight was over. But he declined to endorse the notion that states could defy the courts out of what Carson called "civil disobedience."
"We are a country that abides by the law," he told reporters on Saturday.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a hard-line opponent of gay marriage who is also considering a run for president, may best reflect where the party currently stands on the matter. Addressing the press following a speech that largely focused on blue-collar workers, Santorum complained he was being unfairly pestered about an issue he previously warned would be "suicidal" for the party to embrace.
“I’m wondering if every other candidate gets this question as much as I do," he said.