Former Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, on Monday jumped into a bitter public clash between their two daughters over gay marriage, an anguished personal fight that reflects a broader debate within the Republican Party over allowing same-sex couples to marry.
The Cheneys defended their eldest daughter, Liz Cheney, a U.S. Senate candidate in Wyoming, who on Sunday reaffirmed her opposition to same-sex marriage. And they expressed dismay that their younger daughter, Mary Cheney, and her spouse chose to publicly express their anger about her stance.
"This is an issue we have dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public," Dick and Lynne Cheney said in a statement. "Since it has, one thing should be clear. Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage."
The public eruption of the internal Cheney family drama gave airing to the struggle within the GOP over gay marriage, which is rapidly gaining legal status and wider public acceptance.
Some influential party strategists and top GOP donors have rallied around efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, more than 100 Republicans signed a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.
Public surveys show GOP attitudes about same-sex marriage are changing, albeit at a much slower pace than the overall population. In a Washington Post-ABC poll in March, 34 percent of Republicans said they believe it should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry, up from 22 percent in 2009. Among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents under 50 years old, the support for gay marriage was much higher, with 52 percent backing it.
But gay marriage remains a deeply polarizing issue among social conservatives, key players in the party who exert strong sway in GOP primary elections. In Wyoming, a conservative super-PAC called American Principles Fund ran a television ad for three weeks this fall noting that Liz Cheney is opposed to a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
In Wyoming, where Ms. Cheney is taking on incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, some party strategists doubted the topic would be decisive in the August 2014 primary, but noted the Cheneys' public spat threatened to overshadow other issues.
The back-and-forth began Sunday when Liz Cheney appeared on "Fox News Sunday," where she reiterated her opposition to same-sex marriage, telling host Chris Wallace she holds a different view than her younger sister, Mary, who married her longtime partner Heather Poe in 2012. "I love Mary very much. I love her family very much. This is just an issue on which we disagree," Liz Cheney said.
That prompted an angry response from Ms. Poe, who wrote on Facebook : "Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012, she didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her now say she doesn't support our right to marry is offensive, to say the least." Mary Cheney shared the message on her own Facebook page, adding: "Liz -- this isn't just an issue on which we disagree -- you're just wrong -- and on the wrong side of history."
Their parents sought to referee the feud Monday, saying Liz Cheney has "always treated her sister and her sister's family with love and respect, exactly as she should have done. Compassion is called for, even when there is disagreement about such a fundamental matter, and Liz's many kindnesses shouldn't be used to distort her position," they said.
Dick Cheney endorsed state-sanctioned gay marriage in 2009, saying in remarks at the National Press Club in Washington that "people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish, any kind of arrangement they wish."
A spokeswoman for Liz Cheney did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Mary Cheney and Poe did not respond to a voicemail message left for them.