Amid the Kim Davis debacle, politicians spy a rare opportunity

Surrounded by Rowan County Sheriff's deputies, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, center, with her son Nathan Davis standing by her side, makes a statement to the media at the front door of the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. Davis announced that her office will issue marriage licenses under order of a federal judge, but they will not have her name or office listed.

Surrounded by Rowan County Sheriff's deputies, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, center, with her son Nathan Davis standing by her side, makes a statement to the media at the front door of the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. Davis announced that her office will issue marriage licenses under order of a federal judge, but they will not have her name or office listed. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Surrounded by Rowan County Sheriff's deputies, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, center, with her son Nathan Davis standing by her side, makes a statement to the media at the front door of the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. Davis announced that her office will issue marriage licenses under order of a federal judge, but they will not have her name or office listed. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Surrounded by Rowan County Sheriff’s deputies, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, center, with her son Nathan Davis standing by her side, makes a statement to the media at the front door of the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. Davis announced that her office will issue marriage licenses under order of a federal judge, but they will not have her name or office listed.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Politicians who may have thought they wouldn’t have to say much at all about gay marriage once the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized it now must answer a different question: Do you support Kim Davis?

The Rowan County clerk, who has become a darling of many conservatives despite being a Democrat, cited “God’s authority” and religious liberty in choosing jail time over issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some social conservatives have cast Davis as a hero, shifting the gay marriage debate from one about civil liberties — a matter that appeared to have been settled — to one about religious liberty.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher running for president but trailing badly in the polls, rushed to Davis’ side and said it was unfair the government would not accommodate her beliefs. A judge ultimately freed Davis on the condition she not interfere with her deputies issuing the licenses. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also traveled to Morehead to bask in her defiance. And Kentucky Republican governor hopeful Matt Bevin has tried to capitalize on her recent celebrity.

Others find themselves in a more awkward position. Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee in the state’s closely watched governor’s race, eventually declined to defend the state’s gay marriage ban as attorney general and now must dodge attacks from Bevin, even though both candidates favor carving out an exemption in state law for Davis. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose presidential campaign has focused more on economics than social issues, first said Davis should follow the rule of law. But in last week’s GOP presidential debate, he agreed that “there needs to be an accommodation for someone acting on their faith.”

In the same debate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum compared Davis to a student killed in the Columbine High School massacre who reportedly told one of the gunmen she believed in God before she was shot. And Huckabee said it wasn’t fair that the government allowed the suspected Fort Hood shooter to grow a beard in prison for religious reasons but would not accommodate Davis’ beliefs.

Piggybacking on Davis’ fight could be risky because she refused to fulfill her duties as an elected official and defied several federal court orders, said Matt Mackowiak, who leads the Super PAC “Fight for Kentucky” that is supporting Bevin. He said any ad built around Davis would have to be “very, very carefully constructed.”

“You don’t have to defend every decision she made and the ramification of every decision she made,” Mackowiak said, adding he has not decided if his group will make ads based on Davis and the gay marriage issue. “It’s a pretty narrow situation, but you know it does raise the question: Do you believe in religious liberty?”

Bevin spoke at a jailhouse rally telling the crowd of thousands to share Davis’ story with their neighbors and “bring them to the polls with you.” But since she has been released from jail, he has mostly used Davis as an avenue to remind voters that Conway, as the attorney general, chose not to appeal a federal judge’s order overturning Kentucky’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Kentucky voters approved that amendment in 2004 with 75 percent of the vote. His first television ad, released Friday, made no mention of gay marriage.

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