When Barack Obama took the stage at a fundraiser in New York City this summer, he was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm that had been largely absent from his second term as president. It had been a tough couple of years for Obama, who at the time was beleaguered with a scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The failed rollout of HealthCare.gov was still fresh in American minds, and, unknown to many, the ISIS threat quietly emerging in the Middle East would soon explode and upend the foreign policy of a president who first ran for office as a peace candidate.
For this night, though, Obama carried the kind of rockstar status that first propelled him to the Oval Office almost six years earlier. His audience wasn’t just Democrats, they were LGBT Democrats. He had been introduced at the fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee by two icons of the LGBT-rights movement: Edith Windsor, the elderly lesbian widow who sued the federal government over the Defense of Marriage Act and won, and her attorney, Roberta Kaplan. One day prior, the White House had announced Obama would at last make good on a campaign promise he made as a candidate for president in 2008 to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Obama thanked the audience for helping his administration “do more to protect the rights of lesbian, and gay, and bisexual and transgender Americans than any administration in history.”
Since taking the oath of office in January 2009, Obama has checked off a long list of LGBT accomplishments. The first sitting American president to openly endorse same-sex marriage, he has all but ensured that a Democrat will never again be able to run for the White House without supporting marriage equality. Under his direction, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department ceased defending Section 3 of DOMA in federal court. When the Supreme Court heard arguments in same-sex marriage cases for the first time in March 2013, Obama’s solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, urged the Supreme Court justices to strike down DOMA as well as California’s same-sex marriage ban. And when the Supreme Court declared the federal government’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman as unconstitutional, Obama ordered the decision be implemented swiftly and broadly across government. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bears his signature, and the White House has indicated his openness to at least a review of the military’s existing ban on transgender service. Early on, Obama endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and promised to sign it into law should it reach his desk. He also signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with new LGBT protections, helped enact hate crime legislation, lifted the ban on people with HIV traveling to the U.S. and made the human rights of LGBT people abroad a key component of his foreign policy.
Those moves haven’t just immeasurably improved the lives of LGBT Americans — they have solidified Obama’s legacy on these issues, as well as his political party’s reputation as the stalwart supporter of LGBT rights at a time when public opinion is increasingly shifting in favor of equality. What once was a wedge issue used by Republicans against Democrats has increasingly become one used by Democrats against Republicans, including by Obama himself.
“So now you flash back 10 years ago. Maybe no single issue divided our country more than same-sex marriage,” Obama told the crowd of LGBT donors. “In fact, the Republican Party built their entire strategy for 2004 around this issue. You remember? They calculated that if they put constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on state ballots, they’d turn out more voters, they’d win. And they, frankly, were right. People flocked to the polls. Those amendments were on the ballots in 11 states. They passed in every single one. Now, here’s a good bet. They’re not going to try the same strategy in 2014.”
Obama’s speech that night in New York wasn’t just a victory lap — it also provided a glimpse of the progressive coalition the nation’s first African-American president helped forge. Those who in the past might not have enjoyed full liberty must not stop organizing when their fight has concluded, Obama said, but turn their focus to those still struggling.
“That’s why this community has to be just as concerned about poor kids, regardless of sexual orientation,” Obama said. “That’s why this community should be fighting for workers who aren’t getting paid a minimum wage that’s high enough. That’s why this community has to show compassion for the illegal immigrant who is contributing to our society and just wants a chance to move out of the shadows. That’s why this community should be concerned about equal pay for equal work, straight or gay. That’s why this community has to be concerned about the remaining vestiges of racial discrimination.
“If you’ve experienced being on the outside, you’ve got to be one to bring more folks in even once you are inside,” he continued, with an American flag as his backdrop. “That’s our task. That’s our job. That’s why we’re here tonight.”
Republicans know they have a problem, and it didn’t take Obama’s clarion call for a unified progressive alliance to make them realize it. But the first step to solving any problem is admitting one exists. That realization appeared to come shortly after the 2012 election when it was revealed just how powerful a political hold Democrats maintain on the gay vote. In that election cycle, the number of out members of Congress nearly doubled, from four to seven, with Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin becoming the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. Every one of those members is a Democrat. Moreover, exit polls from the 2012 presidential election showed LGB voters made up 5 percent of the electorate, 76 percent of whom voted for Obama (exit polls did not take into account transgender voters). That’s not entirely surprising when you consider the official platform of the Republican Party adopted in 2012 is blatantly anti-LGBT and opposes the right of same-sex couples to marry, as do many leaders within the GOP.
An expansive “autopsy” report released by the Republican National Committee in March 2013 argued for increased outreach to minority communities, including the LGBT community. While not advocating for an overhaul of the party platform, the report did call for an effort to make the party more welcoming in image and tone.
As the first election since Republicans were trounced in 2012 approaches, the nation’s political landscape has changed dramatically. A battle is raging within the GOP between those who have long held sway over the party’s official positions and advocated a policy of exclusion, and those pushing the party to embrace the civil rights of all Americans. Millions of dollars have been poured into the effort. Some Republicans have openly evolved on issues like marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections, while a remaining clutch of social conservatives grows louder in its opposition. And, on November 4, voters in two states — Massachusetts and California — will have the opportunity to elect the first openly gay Republican to Congress. It is a battle, the outcome of which could change American politics forever.
ONE NEED ONLY hear Richard Tisei speak a few words to know where he’s from. His strong Boston accent is impossible to miss, and with thick brown hair he could be easily mistaken for a Kennedy. Until he starts talking about politics, that is.
“I’m a traditional Republican, a traditional New England Republican,” Tisei says. “I believe in a live-and-let-live philosophy. I think that the government should get off people’s back and out of their wallet and away from the bedroom.”
When we spoke, Tisei’s campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives was recalibrating. Days earlier, Rep. John Tierney, the embattled Democratic incumbent Tisei was attempting to unseat for the second time, had suffered a surprising primary defeat to Seth Moulton. Tisei had run hard against Tierney, who has represented Massachusetts’s 6th Congressional District since 1997, and seemed poised to become the first Massachusetts Republican elected to the House in two decades. Two years prior, Tisei lost narrowly to Tierney 47.1 percent to 48.3 percent. Many credited the win by a vulnerable Tierney, whose wife was mired in a federal tax scandal, to President Barack Obama and Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren being at the top of the 2012 ballot.
But now Tisei is facing a far stronger Democratic opponent. Moulton, a young Marine veteran, is vowing to keep the seat held by Tierney in Democratic control and, much like Tisei, repair Washington. “We won’t get fresh thinking and new leadership by sending someone to Washington who was first elected to office when I was just six years old,” Moulton said during his primary night victory speech.
The 52-year-old Tisei was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1962. He graduated from American University in 1984, and, that same year, at age 23, became the youngest Republican ever elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Tisei served in that chamber until successfully running for the state Senate in 1990. There, he rose to the rank of minority leader, until 2010, when he unsuccessfully ran for statewide office as lieutenant governor.
Tisei’s success in Massachusetts politics has long been credited to his willingness to buck the party line. He supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage and married his partner of 20 years, Bernie Starr, in July 2013. The couple own a real estate brokerage firm together. While on the Republican ticket as lieutenant governor in 2010, he broke with his running mate, gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, to support and co-sponsor legislation that would enshrine into law anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in areas such as employment, housing and education. As governor, Baker said he would veto the bill and his campaign distributed fliers at the Massachusetts Republican Party convention referring to it as the “bathroom bill.” Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick won reelection with 48 percent of the vote in 2010 and the following year signed a version of the transgender-rights bill into law. Tisei was out of politics for the first time in 26 years, but not for long. Two years later he would mount his first campaign against Tierney, running not only as a reformer but a change agent — a banner he continues to run under today.
“I think about how I can be a change agent in Washington and that’s what I talk about. And I guess I would not only be a change agent as far as helping move the country in a different direction, but also a change agent within my party. I don’t shy away from standing up for what I believe in. I have a history of that,” Tisei says.
Earlier this year, after the Massachusetts Republican Party adopted an official platform opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, despite the fact that same-sex couples have been able to marry in the state since 2004, Tisei boycotted a March meeting of Massachusetts Republicans. “I don’t want to go and be seen in any way to be endorsing that,” Tisei told The Boston Globe. “I don’t really feel comfortable being at a convention where the platform takes the party backward, rather than forward, as far as appealing to a large group of Massachusetts voters.” That same month, Tisei told the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference the party would never be a 21st century party if its platform remains stuck in the 19th century.
In 2012 and 2014 Tisei earned the endorsement of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which argues Tisei’s potential election will “break a glass ceiling of becoming the first out LGBT Republican Members of Congress.” The Human Rights Campaign, which has a policy of endorsing pro-LGBT incumbents, had backed Tierney. And while HRC has not yet issued an endorsement for either Tisei or Moulton, who supports LGBT rights, the vice president of the nation’s largest LGBT-rights organization voiced his personal praise for Tisei.
“I think that Richard Tisei is a good man,” says Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for HRC. “I think that he is a good candidate and he has consistently been an advocate for LGBT people and issues important to us. On a personal level, I have a great deal of admiration for him.”
Moulton’s win provides Tisei an opportunity to talk about the issues rather than prosecute a case against Tierney. Moreover, Tisei says voters in the district are looking for more than a new face and he has tried to paint Moulton as a rubber-stamp who will vote no differently than his predecessor. According to an Emerson College poll released earlier this month, Tisei is leading Moulton 41 percent to 39 percent after trailing Moulton 36 percent to 44 percent in early September.
“I think the Republican Party over time has lost its way,” Tisei told me. “Historically, we were always the party that promoted civil rights. That’s why we were formed as a party initially was to promote freedom. We were the party that led the women’s suffrage movement. We were the party that made Native Americans full-fledged citizens of this country. There were a lot of Republicans involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. We were always the party that was trying to expand civil rights. We took a wrong turn, I think, at one point, and a lot of people look for the way forward right now, and I think the way forward is remembering our past.”
CARL DEMAIO IS a fighter. And for much of his life he’s had to be. DeMaio was born in Iowa in 1974 and raised in Orange County, California. When he was a teenager his father left and, two weeks later, his mother died from breast cancer. DeMaio and his brother and sister were split up. He went to a Jesuit boarding school in Maryland at age 14 and later attended Georgetown University on scholarship. “My childhood was always survival,” he says. “‘How do I make it through? How do I take care of myself?'”
DeMaio did survive, starting two consulting companies that he later sold. After moving to San Diego in 2002, he won a seat on the City Council in 2008. With San Diego facing bankruptcy after years of intentionally underfunding the city’s pension system to fund other projects, DeMaio played a key role in a voter initiative to reform the city’s pension program with 401(k)-style retirement accounts. Just over two years into his first term, DeMaio announced his candidacy to replace outgoing Mayor Jerry Sanders. Although San Diego has a history of electing Republican mayors and polls showed DeMaio leading his Democratic opponent, Congressman Bob Filner, he lost the race 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent. Much like Tisei’s race for the House of Representatives that same year, DeMaio’s defeat was partially credited to high Democratic turnout spurred by Obama being at the top of the 2012 ballot.
DeMaio is now attempting to unseat Democratic Rep. Scott Peters, considered by many to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents this election cycle. According to DeMaio, California’s 52nd Congressional District is one that reflects the future of the country. “The fastest growing party in this district is the independent or ‘none of the above’ party. And both parties are losing members in terms of voter registration,” DeMaio told me. “It’s fiscally responsible and socially accepting. Accepting of the notion that individuals have the rights to live their lives the way they want and that we should live and let live. And that I think is where the country is going.”
The historical significance of his candidacy is not lost on DeMaio, who came out in 2000 and has been with his partner for six years. He looks younger than his 40 years and welcomes the opportunity to be a role model not only for LGBT Americans who don’t “toe the Democratic Party line,” but also LGBT youth. “I might be a role model for LGBT youth around the country who live in conservative families and are wondering will my mom or my dad support me, accept me. Well maybe they are sitting in the living room and they see their mom and dad watching Meet the Press and Carl DeMaio is talking about economic reform or fiscal reform and the mom says, ‘I like him.’ And the dad says, ‘Yeah, I don’t care that he’s gay. I like his ideas.’ And maybe that gives them some hope and some comfort and some confidence that they can be who they want to be.” But, DeMaio adds, that’s not why he’s running.
“I’m running for public office because this economy is broken and the country is broke. Programs are failing us,” he says. “But I also recognize there is a side development in my candidacy and my leadership that is perhaps transformational on some of these issues and I accept that. It does weigh on me how can I best live up to the expectations that people have of me.”
DeMaio and Tisei have both been open about their sexual orientation, featuring their partners in campaign materials and advertisements. In February, Peters’ campaign released a video of DeMaio speaking to tea party supporters in 2011 as “evidence of his allegiance to the far-right fringe.” DeMaio has tried to counter those claims and states in a television ad released this month, “As a proud gay American, I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. But a tea party extremist? Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Although DeMaio touts himself as a reformer in much the same fashion as Tisei, the reception his candidacy has received from LGBT groups has been far more negative. This could be partially credited to DeMaio’s blunt personality. He can be combative, and is quick to criticize those within the LGBT-rights movement he sees as more devoted to electing Democrats than securing equality.
“I take heat from these LGBT groups that frankly are more interested in a political agenda than an equality agenda,” DeMaio says. “They want the Republican Party to remain a boogeyman. They don’t want it to change because the Republican Party is a good foil for their fundraising. It’s a good motivator for their donors to get Democrats elected. And it’s unfortunate they’ve taken a partisan view of their role rather than a social change or equality view of their mission. My hope is that will change over time, but I do know they oppose the notion of the work I’m doing to change the Republican Party for that very fact.”
When I asked DeMaio what groups he was referring to, he said he would leave that to my own research, but then quickly launched into a screed against the Victory Fund. According to DeMaio, the Victory Fund, which has long faced criticism from LGBT liberals for supporting Republican candidates like Tisei, is anything but nonpartisan. In 2008, when DeMaio ran for city council, he claims that Victory Fund turned down his application for an endorsement because he wasn’t considered a viable candidate for his district.
“So I decided to walk door to door and I figured if people met me at the door and got to know me personally, that no matter what they heard later on that they would remember that I’m a real person, I’m more than a label or my sexual orientation, that I’ve got ideas,” he says. “And not only did I win the seat without Victory Fund’s support, I won by the largest margin of any non-incumbent in the history of the city.” Two years later, he applied again for Victory Fund’s endorsement in his bid for mayor. “By this point I have 100 percent LGBT record. I led the movement to get the city on record against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ I seconded our efforts to pass the equal benefits ordinance, I got the entire city council to walk hand-in-hand in the gay pride parade. I was very proud of the work I did in advancing the notion of equality in a thoughtful, in a strategic way on the city council and making it cool for Republicans to be involved in this too. So I applied for the endorsement and they said, ‘Well, yes you’re viable, yes you meet all of our criteria. We’ll take it to the board and we’ll let you know.'” After a rigorous back and forth between his and Victory Fund’s staff, DeMaio says his application was rejected a second time. Moreover, he alleges the D.C.-based organization turned over his campaign budget to Filner’s campaign (Victory Fund has dismissed these claims as baseless). DeMaio did not apply a third time for Victory Fund’s endorsement.
“You’ve got groups that don’t want the Republican Party to change,” DeMaio says. “If you’re a Republican they will not support you if you have a real chance to win. Oh, they’ll grab one or two tokens and they will support them in suicide missions but they will not support a Republican with a real legitimate chance to win.”
When I note that Tisei is facing a far tougher Democratic opponent in November and the third man who was vying to become the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress, Victory Fund-endorsed Dan Innis of New Hampshire, lost his primary, DeMaio nods. “We’re going to make history in November, and it’s unfortunate that Victory Fund for political reasons chose not to be part of history,” he says.
“The Victory Fund board endorsed the only two openly gay Republican Congressional candidates who sought our endorsement this year,” Denis Dison, senior vice president of Victory Fund, responded in an email. “Carl’s comments suggest he doesn’t think much of those candidates, but that’s between him and them. It’s certainly an unusual campaign strategy to constantly complain to the press about a national endorsement he didn’t receive, especially when the endorsement was never sought. We advise our candidates to talk to voters about the concerns that matter most in their communities. Perhaps Carl is getting bad communications advice.”
DeMaio and Tisei appear to have a good working relationship. When I interviewed DeMaio in the restaurant of the National Republican Club on Capitol Hill, Tisei stopped by our table to say hello. Later that day, the two men held a joint fundraiser on a rooftop near the White House that was attended by CNN’s S.E. Cupp. “They both really represent the intellectual diversity of the Republican Party and remind us all it’s not our grandparents’ party anymore,” Cupp said.
But it’s not just Victory Fund that has pushed back against DeMaio. While DeMaio’s opponent has secured the endorsement of HRC consistent with its policy of backing pro-LGBT incumbents, representatives of the organization had far less praise for DeMaio than Tisei.
“I consider him to be a flawed candidate and someone who has a very, very, very spotty record of support for LGBT people or issues important to us,” said HRC’s Sainz. Sainz, who lived in San Diego for 15 years, knows DeMaio personally from his time as press secretary for San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican with a lesbian daughter who reversed his opposition to same-sex marriage in 2007. According to Sainz, DeMaio said no to his request to publicly come out against California’s proposed ban on same-sex marriage for political reasons.
“When it mattered most, he was unwilling to oppose Proposition 8,” Sainz says. “He terms our issues to be ‘social issues’ that he doesn’t want to speak about. They’re not social issues, they’re our lives. In a country in which there is still a tremendous amount of stigma, alienation, lack of legal protections for LGBT people, you would think that someone in his position would want to use that mantle of leadership in order to make a way for him and his brothers and sisters to better their lives. And the unfortunate reality is he hasn’t, consistently.”
During his campaign for mayor, DeMaio was criticized and sometimes booed at public events by members of the LGBT community for remaining quiet on gay issues and accepting donations from supporters of Proposition 8.
“It’s a great irony to me that the straight man is a far better candidate and elected official for the LGBT community than the gay man is. That, I think, is reflective of his character,” Sainz says, noting that HRC clearly understands Republicans are needed to win as demonstrated by the organization’s endorsement of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a champion of ENDA and supporter of marriage equality. “Our support for Scott Peters has nothing to do with Carl being a Republican. It has everything to do with Carl,” Sainz adds.
Last week, DeMaio’s campaign was upended by allegations that he engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior and tried to bribe a former campaign staffer for silence. DeMaio has been accused of masturbating in front of the former staffer, Todd Bosnich, and grabbing Bosnich sexually. After voicing concerns to DeMaio’s campaign manager, Bosnich says he was fired and offered a job in the county Republican Party along with $50,000 to sign a nondisclosure agreement. He chose not to sign the agreement. DeMaio has vehemently denied the allegations, stating Bosnich was fired from the campaign for plagiarism and is being investigated for breaking into campaign headquarters, smashing computers and cutting phone lines before the primary. Weeks before the general election, it’s the kind of “he-said, he-said” story any campaign would want to avoid, but particularly one in San Diego. Filner, who defeated DeMaio in the 2012 mayoral election, was forced to resign from office in August 2013 after facing multiple accusations of sexual harassment. DeMaio briefly considered running in the special election to replace Filner, but was already in the midst of his campaign for Congress. In December, Filner was sentenced to 90 days home confinement, three years’ probation and fines totaling $1,500 for assaulting three women while in office. DeMaio has also faced allegations of sexual misconduct before. In August 2013, former city councilmember and current Democratic State Sen. Ben Hueso said he walked in on DeMaio masturbating in a San Diego City Hall bathroom in 2009. DeMaio denied the allegations and took a polygraph test, which he passed.
“These allegations are completely false,” Dave McCulloch, spokesperson for the DeMaio campaign, said in a statement. “The individual making the claims was fired from the campaign months ago for plagiarism. The individual only made these false allegations after the San Diego Police Department started investigating him as the suspect for the campaign office break-in.” DeMaio’s campaign manager, Tommy Knepper, said he voluntarily took a polygraph exam administered by the San Diego Police Department in August that showed he was truthful in denying Bosnich made claims to him of sexual harassment and that the campaign attempted to bribe him.
On Oct. 11, a fundraiser for DeMaio featuring House Speaker John Boehner went ahead as scheduled.
ALTHOUGH THE ELECTION of either Tisei or DeMaio would mark the first openly gay Republican ever elected to Congress, two gay Republicans have come out before while serving in Congress.
In 1994, during a debate on the House floor over a proposal to deny federal funding to school districts that teach students about homosexuality, Rep. Bob Dornan of California outed his fellow Republican congressman Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin in front of his colleagues and C-SPAN cameras. “He has a revolving door on his closet,” Dornan said. “He’s in, he’s out, he’s in, he’s out, he’s in. I guess you’re out because you went up and spoke to a huge homosexual dinner, Mr. Gunderson.” Earlier that month, Gunderson had spoken at an HRC dinner. Although Gunderson did not run for reelection in 1996, before retiring from Congress he became the sole Republican vote in either the House or Senate against the Defense of Marriage Act. Taking to the House floor to urge his colleagues to vote against what he described as a “mean political game,” Gunderson said, “I stand here today with respect and with love for each of you as fellow members of the human race. All I ask in return is that you don’t intentionally make me any less worthy than you.” DOMA was approved by the House 342-67, by the Senate 85-14 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Sept. 21, 1996.
One of those votes cast in favor of DOMA was by Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, who became the second congressional Republican to reveal his sexual orientation after gay-rights activists targeted him with an outing campaign over his support for DOMA. Kolbe remained in Congress for another decade before choosing not to seek a 12th term in 2006.
For those who spend their days lobbying Republicans on and off Capitol Hill to embrace issues such as marriage equality or LGBT employment protections, the prospect of having a representative of the LGBT community within the Republican caucus could prove pivotal — particularly at a time when public support for LGBT rights is growing faster than ever.
“They’ll be able to make the case to congress members from those red states. That’s why a victory for either or both [Tisei and DeMaio] is something that shouldn’t be downplayed,” says Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, which has endorsed both candidates. “It really would be a game changer, not only with the way other members of the GOP view the significance of openly gay members of the Republican Party, it would also be a game changer when it comes to the way Democrats are able to calibrate their politics as they forge ahead.”
No piece of legislation can move in Congress without Republican support. This was true when the Senate approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in November with the support of 10 Republicans — the most Senate Republicans to ever vote for a piece of gay-rights legislation, let alone one that also protects transgender Americans (in comparison, only eight Senate Republicans voted for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010). And it will remain true for other pieces of LGBT-rights legislation, such as the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the remaining sections of DOMA not struck down by the Supreme Court. Starting a conversation with Republicans when most of those bills are sponsored by liberal Democrats is far more difficult than if they were carried by someone like Tisei or DeMaio. Says Angelo: “Having members be able to make that case, not only as Republicans but as gay Republicans would, I think, play a significant role in increasing support among Republicans for things like ENDA or things in that LGBT portfolio we lobby for.”
For others in the movement, the election of a gay Republican simply doesn’t make sense strategically in the short-term. Tisei in particular has faced strong opposition from some of the movement’s loudest voices, including former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Frank was an active supporter of Tierney and vocal opponent of Tisei. “The fact that Richard Tisei is openly gay is a good thing. The problem is that it is of no use to us,” Frank has said, arguing Tisei would still be a vote for Republican leadership, including House Speaker John Boehner, who has blocked legislation such as ENDA.
“The speaker needs to hear from members of his own caucus to bring it up,” Tisei told me in response to those arguments. “Having people there and making the case to him I think would be helpful, number one. I think there are a lot of LGBT activists who like the way things are right now because they’re partisan Democrats. The worst thing that could ever happen to a lot of them is to have two good parties because their identity as Democratic activists is as strong as their identity as LGBT members. So as long as we have this divide right now, that’s good for them, as far as keeping a voter bloc in place that benefits them electorally.”
“Time after time, when equality has moved forward in state legislatures Republican votes have been part of that equation,” DeMaio says. “Imagine the number of votes we could capture on these issues if you continue to change minds by touching hearts, by being present in the room, by being one of the team, by stating our case from inside the tent rather than casting aspersions from outside the tent. At the end of the day, these guys are grasping at straws to defend the extreme, partisan position they have taken that’s not about equality, that’s about political gain for their party. And that’s fine, they’re Democrats. They’re loyal Democrats. But don’t pretend to be interested in equality issues — don’t say you’re a nonpartisan group that’s only interested in advancing equality when you’ve shown yourself time and time again to oppose one party and not want to change that party to make them more supportive of our issues.”
One of the key organizations devoted to breaking Republican opposition to LGBT rights is American Unity PAC, which launched in 2012 with the financial-backing of billionaire hedge fund manager and GOP donor Paul Singer. American Unity PAC is a federal super PAC focused on protecting and promoting Republican candidates for Congress who embrace LGBT rights. In 2013, American Unity Fund was launched as well, which is a nonprofit focused on working with Republicans and Republican officeholders to advance LGBT rights. This year alone more than $11 million has already been put into the movement by American Unity and its supporters. They work closely with such partners as HRC, Freedom to Marry and Gill Action. Earlier this month, a national gathering of American Unity donors was held at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington to plot a path forward for the movement. According to an agenda for the private conference, attendees included a number of pro-LGBT conservatives, including Singer, who has a gay son, Ted Olson, Ken Mehlman, Margaret Hoover, former Sen. Norm Coleman, Rep. Charlie Dent of New York and Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois.
Jeff Cook-McCormac, a senior advisor for both American Unity PAC and American Unity Fund, told me that while having a member of the LGBT community be a part of the dialogue in the Republican conference would have a great impact (American Unity PAC has financially backed both Tisei and DeMaio), it is important to remember the degree to which straight Republicans have also changed the game.
“At this point in 2012 not only did we have only six states with the freedom to marry, now we’re looking at 35 today, but we also only had one Republican in all of Congress who embraced the freedom to marry,” he told me. “And since that election and since the continued thoughtful dialogue that has occurred with Republican legislators, we’ve gone from one to eight [supporters of same-sex marriage] without any elections taking place in between. There’s been a real major shift already in that many Republicans are finding it easier to really follow their consciences on these issues.”
This is partly due to what Cook-McCormac calls the “Portman effect.” In March 2013, about a week before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio became the first Republican senator to endorse same-sex marriage. Portman, who was on the shortlist to become Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate, said his evolution on the issue occurred after his son, Will, came out to him two years earlier as a freshman at Yale University. Portman has also left the door open to a possible run for president in 2016, which would make him the first Republican presidential candidate to support same-sex marriage.
“The impact of it has really been twofold,” Cook-McCormac says of Portman’s endorsement of marriage equality. “One is that it’s given Republicans a little bit more courage to stand out knowing that one of the leading conservatives voices in this country has found that it’s consistent with conservative principles to believe that freedom means freedom for everyone. But even more compelling isn’t what’s happened with Republicans since Portman, it’s what’s happened among Democrats since Portman. And this is what we refer to in the movement as the ‘Portman effect.'”
What this means, he says, is “when a Republican who is known as being pretty darn conservative announces their support for the freedom to marry it creates this complication effect among Democratic voices of both guilt and political cover that helps move those last few reluctant Democrats in the right direction.” Indeed, three of Portman’s Republican colleagues in the Senate have followed his lead: Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Moreover, only three Senate Democrats have not yet openly endorsed same-sex marriage. In the House, four Republicans support marriage equality: Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Charlie Dent (Pa.) and David Jolly (Fla.).
But other members of the party have been far more opposed to change. Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Oct. 5 decision declining to hear cases challenging same-sex marriage bans in five states — Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Indiana and Wisconsin — thus allowing lower court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage in those states to stand, Sen. Ted Cruz lashed out at the nine Supreme Court justices for engaging in judicial activism at its worst. Cruz vowed to introduce a constitutional amendment to “prevent the federal government or the courts from attacking or striking down state marriage laws.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision to let rulings by lower court judges stand that redefine marriage is both tragic and indefensible,” declared Cruz, who argued before the Supreme Court nine times as solicitor general of Texas, more times than any other member of Congress. “By refusing to rule if the States can define marriage, the Supreme Court is abdicating its duty to uphold the Constitution. The fact that the Supreme Court Justices, without providing any explanation whatsoever, have permitted lower courts to strike down so many state marriage laws is astonishing.”
An exasperated Mike Huckabee, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and won the Iowa Republican caucuses that year, vowed to leave the party if GOP leadership didn’t take a stand against same-sex marriage. “If the Republicans wanna lose guys like me, and a whole bunch of still God-fearing Bible-believing people, go ahead and just abdicate on this issue. And while you’re at it go ahead and say abortion doesn’t matter either,” Huckabee warned on an American Family Association program. “Because at that point, you lose me, I’m gone. I’ll become an independent. I’ll start finding people that have guts to stand. I’m tired of this.”
What’s more, social conservatives have declared war on the candidacies of Tisei and DeMaio, along with a pro-LGBT Senate candidate in Oregon. In a letter to Republican leadership, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Tom Minnery of CitizenLink vowed to “actively oppose the election” of Tisei, DeMaio and Monica Wehby, who released a television ad last month in which she appeared alongside one of the plaintiffs who successfully sued Oregon over the state’s same-sex marriage ban. Moreover, they promised to “mount a concerted effort to urge voters to refuse to cast ballots for them in the November election” because they are “antithetical to the Republican platform.” In essence, these three conservative leaders would rather see two House seats and one Senate seat remain in Democratic control than to have voters send a Republican to Capitol Hill who supports LGBT-rights and abortion.
“The reality is that someone who will betray the core truth about our values on marriage and life, then why would they not betray our values in foreign policy or the economic realm. They all go together,” Brown told the Values Voter Summit last month in Washington.
All such cries are on the fringe of American politics, as illustrated by the near universal silence of most members of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill following the legalization of same-sex marriage in a majority of states. But this isn’t the first time social conservatives have attempted to block the elections of DeMaio or Tisei. In December, reports surfaced that Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes was actively seeking to convince colleagues on Capitol Hill as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee, which donates to GOP congressional campaigns, to end their support for Republican candidates who are gay. Asked during a press conference at the time of those reports whether he believes his party should support gay candidates, House Speaker John Boehner responded simply, “I do.” Boehner has publicly supported both Tisei and DeMaio. Nevertheless, the voices of those social conservative leaders still carry, and for politicians with national aspirations such as Cruz, they present an opportunity to galvanize members of a voting bloc who feel increasingly marginalized, not only in American society but within their own party.
“I believe they have made a calculated political decision that their way to break through is to appeal to the remaining 20 percent of the U.S. electorate that still believes this stuff,” HRC’s Fred Sainz told me. “Cruz has a track record of doing that on immigration reform, on a whole number of tea party-like issues. I think it’s a ruthless demagogic tactic. I just cannot believe for a moment that an individual that graduated from two Ivy League institutions actually believes that horseshit.”
Social conservatives appear increasingly resigned to the fact that they will find no help from the courts on issues like same-sex marriage, and must instead focus on federal legislation (Brown himself has recently echoed back to the 2004 presidential election with a call for the U.S. Constitution to be amended to ban same-sex marriage nationwide). Such a strategy is unlikely to succeed, but arguably it could raise the stakes for electing a gay Republican to Congress. “Full equality won’t come until we get the last remaining portion of the market share, and that market share exists in the very socially conservative part of our country, amongst those voters,” DeMaio says.
Should Tisei or DeMaio lose their elections in November, the Tony Perkinses of American politics will likely spin it as a victory for social conservatism rather than a reflection of the complexities of the two districts. The Republican march toward embracing equality will no doubt continue, even if it does so quietly, with fewer and fewer Republicans willing to waste political capital fighting the inevitable. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said recently on MSNBC that this election cycle isn’t about same-sex marriage, but, in largely vague terms, insisted social conservatives are right to be concerned. “I don’t think it’s a top-tier issue for the midterms, but I do think long term, it’s an issue with regard to what we need to do in this country,” he said. “Number 1, have a strong economy, a strong defense and a strong society.”
Yet both Tisei and DeMaio insist that progress might move just a bit faster, whether it be on marriage equality, ENDA or even protections for LGBT people that mirror the Civil Rights Act, if LGBT Americans have a voice in the room with Republican lawmakers.
“We’re on the cusp,” Tisei says. “We just need a few catalysts to move us in the right direction.” Noting polling that consistently shows a large majority of Republicans under 40 support LGBT rights, Tisei says it is simply a matter of time before support for LGBT equality gains acceptance as a popular position within the Republican Party. “It would be great to have two parties that agree on equality and not just one. We’ll never have true equality in the country until we have people on both sides of the aisle who are willing to stand up for what we believe is right.”
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