PHOENIX — Gov. Jan Brewer's veto of a bill allowing businesses to refuse service to gays exposed a fracture within the Republican Party between social conservatives and the GOP's pro-business wing, a split that Democrats hope to turn into a midterm election campaign issue.
The Republican governor has made job creation and business expansion the centerpiece of her administration, and she was more than willing to disregard the wishes of social conservatives amid protests from major corporations such as American Airlines and Apple Inc. As a result, the GOP base was left dispirited, and opponents of gay marriage are struggling to find their footing after significant losses in the courts and statehouses.
"It's leading people to say: 'We're not sure where the Republican party is on something as basic as economic freedom,'" said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, a conservative group in Washington, D.C., that argued the proposal was aimed simply at allowing people to run businesses as they saw fit. "There certainly is a risk, especially as you head into the midterm elections, when the turnout of your base is essential."
Brewer vetoed the measure Wednesday night after Republicans ranging from Mitt Romney to her state's two U.S. Senators urged her to reject the measure, which emerged from the GOP-controlled state Legislature. The bill was designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays or others who offend their beliefs. Opponents called it an open attack on gays that invited discrimination.
Gay marriage is increasingly popular nationwide, and the Democratic Party already has been claiming that measures like the Arizona bill are a throwback to pre-civil rights era Jim Crow laws.
"Let's be really clear: Jan Brewer's veto of this bill was not exactly profiles in courage," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview. "She specifically referred to her concern being economic. This is one state in about 10 or 12 that this legislation is moving through the process, pushed by Republicans."
Following a series of court rulings striking down gay marriage bans in conservative states, several legislatures have considered bills to give more protection to businesses that turn away gay couples. But so far, Arizona is the only state where the legislation has reached the governor's desk.
The measures are inspired by the cases of a New Mexico wedding photographer and bakers in Colorado and Oregon who separately refused service for gay weddings or civil unions and have been penalized by courts.
After Brewer's veto, sponsors of similar legislation in Ohio said they'd withdraw their bill, and a Mississippi legislative panel proposed changes that would remove a key component of that state's measure.
Democrats argued that the GOP would pay a price for even considering such explosive legislation.
"This bill should have never gone this far, and the fact that it did shows how far to the right the Republican Party has lurched," said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is yet another reminder of the Republican brand of intolerance."
But Republican operatives in Arizona and elsewhere expressed doubt that the issue will have much of an impact eight months from now in the election. They also noted it was a Republican veto that kept it from becoming law.
"It's tough to go after Republicans on this because pretty much every Republican except those in the Arizona Legislature didn't support this," said Ross Hemminger co-executive director of GOProud, a Republican gay rights group.
Grant Woods, a Republican and former Arizona attorney general who is close to Brewer, acknowledged that the bill could have a national impact in terms of perpetuating a negative image of Arizona. But he said voters will see through the rhetoric.
"I think that people who are inclined to blame Republicans for everything will just use this as one more thing to blame them for," he said. "But for most people, they are going to understand this cuts both ways."
Underscoring the GOP's uncomfortable position, torn between its base and centrists horrified by the legislation, neither the Arizona Republican Party nor the Republican National Committee was willing to comment Thursday. A Pew Research Center survey last year found Republicans nationwide are evenly divided, 45-45, on whether homosexuality should be accepted. In contrast, more than two-thirds of Democrats and Independents said it should be accepted.
"I think those are issues that ultimately could galvanize a pretty big voting block to go out and get involved later in the year," Woods said. "And, certainly if these same people don't wake up on some of these basic issues of discrimination and equal protection, the time will come when they'll be taken out of office."
Democrats are battling against public dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and his health care overhaul and could lose control of the U.S. Senate in November. But the Arizona legislation could boost them in at least the state's congressional races.
Democratic Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick is being challenged by Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin and State Rep. Adam Kwasman, both of whom voted for the bill. Democratic Rep. Ron Barber has been attacking his opponent, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally, for taking too long before speaking out against it.
Those electoral concerns, coupled with worries that the legislation could trigger a boycott of Arizona and tarnish its image, led to heavy pressure on Brewer to veto the bill.
Meanwhile, gay marriage foes who have seen repeated losses in conservative states over recent months — federal judges struck down same sex marriage bans in Oklahoma, Utah and Texas — were distraught.
"This is going to continue to be a major problem, and it's going to spread across the country," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said on Fox News after Brewer's veto. "Who's going to protect the rights of Christians and religious people? That's the question that has to be answered."
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Steve Peoples and Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
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