The case of Kim Davis -- the Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to issue gay marriage licenses -- has highlighted a deep cultural gap in the Republican Party. And no one has exploited that gap more than Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor running for president.
Huckabee, author of the flyover-populist manifesto "God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy," jumped on the Davis case at the beginning. His advance staff traveled to Grayson, Kentucky, and spent days organizing the September 8 "I'm With Kim Liberty Rally." The plan was for Huckabee to visit Davis in jail and then speak at the event. But the day before, news came that Davis would be released, and she ended up the star at her own rally.
When Davis took the stage, joined by husband, Joe, more than a few urban Republicans watched in either amusement or dismay. With praise to Jesus, white crosses held high in the audience and Joe Davis in overalls and a hat, the televised scene struck some viewers as almost a Hollywood caricature of downscale religiosity. The next day, in conversation at a Washington social event, one conservative writer called Davis "the Honey Boo Boo of religious freedom."
Beyond the undeniable cultural condescension, the Davis case has divided Republicans on the substance of the issues involved. Actually, they are united in believing Davis should not have been jailed. But beyond that, they are divided on gay marriage, and (the majority of) gay marriage opponents are further divided on how to press the case for religious freedom in light of the Supreme Court's marriage edict.
Huckabee is the farthest out there, arguing the court decision is not law. "In the case of this decision," Huckabee told radio host Michael Medved recently, "it goes back to what Jefferson said, that if a decision is rendered that is not borne out by the will of the people either through their elected people and gone through the process, if you just say it's the law of the land because the court decided, then Jefferson said, 'You now have surrendered to judicial tyranny.'"
In addition, Huckabee argues the Supreme Court decision does not override the Kentucky state constitution, which was amended with overwhelming popular support in 2004 to ban gay marriage. "That's the law (Davis) was elected under," Huckabee said on MSNBC. "That's the law she served under. It's the law she took an oath under."
Most Republicans, while they believe there should be a religious freedom accommodation for people like Davis, are not going to argue that a Supreme Court decision, no matter how badly reasoned, is not the controlling legal authority in the United States. Huckabee is nearly by himself on that one.
But there was something else going on in Grayson this week that had little to do with constitutional law. Whatever else it was, the Davis rally was a show of organizational strength by the Huckabee campaign. Drawing 5,000 people to a rally in a tiny town -- the schools were closed in anticipation of the crowds and congestion -- is no small achievement. And by doing the heavy organizational lifting, the Huckabee team brought together a number of social conservative groups that could play key roles in Huckabee's drive to solidify evangelical support in the Iowa caucuses and beyond.
The Huckabee team worked with the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the National Organization for Marriage and other groups. Huckabee aides say the campaign got in touch with more than 750 churches in Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio and North Carolina. That's a lot of ministers who might be called on in the future. The team also sent out millions of emails -- all in a frenzied long weekend of organizing.
Those connections matter. On Wednesday, David Brody, the respected Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent, tweeted: "Political impact analysis of what went down in KY yesterday: @GovMikeHuckabee big winner: This could be watershed moment."
The rally was such a big deal that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas -- Huckabee's rival for evangelical votes -- tried at the last minute to grab a role in it. Cruz traveled to Grayson and wanted to speak to the crowd. But he was physically blocked from doing so by a Huckabee advance man. There was no way the Huckabee campaign was going to work like mad for several days to organize an event and then give another candidate the stage.
So there was intensive politicking behind the scenes at the "I'm With Kim Liberty Rally." Some Republicans -- call them establishment, coastal, urban or maybe just snooty -- looked down their noses at the spectacle. But there was serious business going on, and Mike Huckabee hopes it will serve him well in months to come.