Metro Weekly

LGBTQ Candidates Celebrate Significant Victories

LGBTQ candidates experience a third straight "rainbow wave" despite fears that they might become casualties of a pro-Republican election cycle.

Rainbow Wave – Photo: Willyambradberry, via Dreamstime.

For the third straight electoral cycle in a row, LGBTQ candidates for political office broke a previous record, with at least 340 out LGBTQ candidates winning races at various levels of government as of 9 a.m. on Wednesday. 

While many races have not yet been called due to the heavy volume of mail-in ballots (one of the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which changed voting behavior), the number of successful candidates eclipses the previous record, set in 2020, of 336 out elected candidates.

In total, 1,065 out LGBTQ people ran for office in 2022, with 678 making it to the general election. With 340 of those 678 winning, even if no additional LGBTQ candidates were to win in yet-to-be-called races — which is highly unlikely — it means more than half, or 50.15%, of all LGBTQ candidates appearing on general election ballots were victorious.

This third successive cycle of a “rainbow wave” of candidates comes during a cycle when LGBTQ rights have largely been under attack, especially at the state legislative level, with lawmakers — primarily Republicans — pushing bills targeting the LGBTQ community. 

Several legislatures have passed laws to gag teachers and students from discussing LGBTQ-related issues in schools, even in an offhand manner that is not part of an official curriculum, to ban transgender athletes from competing in sports based on their gender identity, to restrict transgender students from using restrooms or other facilities that don’t match their gender identity, and, in some states, bar doctors from prescribing gender-affirming treatments to minors suffering from gender dysphoria.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has directed state child welfare agencies to carry out “child abuse” investigations of parents who socially affirm their children’s transgender identity, meaning an investigation may be launched if a third-party complainant simply believes or assumes that parents have allowed their children to access gender-affirming medical treatments, regardless of whether that assumption is based in fact.

Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston and current president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund, which advocates for greater LGBTQ political representation, celebrated the third successful cycle for LGBTQ candidates — which came as a shock to some political prognosticators who had thought LGBTQ candidates might become casualties of a Republican-friendly year that was supposed to sweep in local, legislative and statewide candidates hostile to homosexuality or gender-nonconformity.

“Bigots tried their best to undermine our political power — but their hate backfired and motivated more LGBTQ people to run and win than ever before,” Parker said in a statement. “Tonight’s ‘rainbow wave’ is a clear rebuke to the increased homophobia and transphobia sweeping our communities — and proves voters want to elect qualified LGBTQ leaders. With so much at stake this election, from the future of marriage equality to abortion, LGBTQ candidates’ grit and exceptional grassroots support is paying off.”

In the end, the major storyline of Tuesday’s election was the “red tsunami” that wasn’t. While many pundits went into Tuesday’s elections with predictions of disaster for Democrats, that narrative didn’t seem to hold up once actual vote results began being reported. As of Wednesday morning, national Democrats had picked up a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, where LGBTQ ally John Fetterman was elected, and were locked in tight races in four other states, leaving the balance of power in question, with both the Democratic and Republican Senate caucuses holding 48 seats each. 

Thanks in part due to voters under the age of 29 — who were the only age group to favor Democratic candidates for Congress, according to exit polls — many of the losses that were expected to sweep out incumbents never materialized, allowing many incumbent Democrats in vulnerable seats to breathe easier.

As far as LGBTQ candidates are concerned, 7 of 9 congressional incumbents were re-elected, with Minnesota Congresswoman Angie Craig, Kansas Congresswoman Sharice Davids, and New Hampshire Congressman Chris Pappas — winning handily over their opponents despite being predicted to lose by some prognosticators who were bullish on Republicans’ prospects this cycle. The eighth incumbent, Rep. Mondaire Jones, lost to a fellow Democrat in a primary in a newly-drawn district, while the ninth incumbent, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, went down to defeat in a Hudson Valley district.

At least three other out LGBTQ candidates for Congress have won open seat races, with Vermont’s Becca Balint, California’s Robert Garcia, who will be the first LGBTQ immigrant ever to serve in Congress, and Illinois’ Eric Sorenson emerging victorious. Even with the outcome of Maloney’s race uncertain, those three victories means there will be a record-high number of LGBTQ congressional representatives in the next Congress, eclipsing the previous high of nine. 

In New York’s 3rd Congressional District, Republican George Devolder-Santos currently leads Democrat Robert Zimmerman in a Long Island seat where the outcome will largely be determined by outstanding mail-in ballots. Because both men are gay, a victory by either would bring the LGBTQ caucus to 11, with Devolder-Santos potentially becoming the first out LGBTQ Republican to be elected to Congress. Former Republican Reps. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, Mark Foley of Florida, Ed Schrock of Virginia, and Jim Kolbe of Arizona all either came out — or were outed — after being elected to Congress.

Other LGBTQ candidates in competitive races that had not been called as of Wednesday morning include Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a progressive lesbian who upset a conservative Democratic incumbent in Oregon, who was locked in a tight race; and Will Rollins, a former military prosecutor taking on longtime Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, a longtime Southern California politician who recently had his district redrawn to include the heavily LGBTQ (and Democratic-leaning) city of Palm Springs and has recently altered his voting behavior on LGBTQ-related issues, such as the Respect for Marriage Act, as a result. 

In gubernatorial races, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, was re-elected handily, and — with thousands of outstanding mail-in ballots yet to be counted — is currently leading by 17 points over Heidi Ganahl, one of several Republicans who repeated a debunked claim that public schools were installing litter boxes for children who identify as cats — a vicious right-wing trope that mocks and misrepresents the process that gender-nonconforming and transgender kids go through when determining their own identity.

In Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, romped to victory in her bid to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Charlie Baker as the commonwealth’s top executive, becoming the first woman governor elected in state history (former Gov. Jane Swift assumed office after her predecessor stepped down) and the first out lesbian governor to lead any state.

In Oregon, House Speaker Tina Kotek, an out lesbian, was locked in a tight race, due in part to a third-party candidate siphoning off votes that might otherwise have benefitted Kotek. If Kotek wins, she’ll share the honor of being the first out lesbian elected governor of a state along with Healey.

In Michigan, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, a lesbian, was re-elected despite a strong effort by Republicans to unseat the liberal-leaning prosecutor and replace her with Matt DePerno, a lawyer who challenged the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in Michigan. 

“Despite a continuous barrage of hate, Dana stood steadfast in her work to safeguard election results and protect LGBTQ people and abortion rights in Michigan,” Parker, of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said in a statement. “Our rights were on the ballot this year — and Michigan voters delivered.”

Tuesday also saw several other firsts this cycle, including the fact that, for the first time in history, there was at least one candidate running for political office in every state and U.S. territory. In Alaska, which heretofore was only one of four states that had never elected an LGBTQ lawmaker, voters selected Jennie Armstrong and Andrew Gray to represent them in the House of Representatives. A third LGBTQ candidate, Ashley Carrick, currently leads in a third House race. 

In Montana, Zoeey Zephyr became the first transgender woman ever elected to the Montana House of Representatives. Another candidate, SJ Howell, who would be the first nonbinary person elected to the Montana legislature, is also running, although that race has not yet been called.

In Minnesota, Erin Maye Quade and Clare Oumou Verbeten won election to the State Senate, which flipped back to Democratic control. Both Quade and Verbeten are the first out LGBTQ women and the first Black women ever elected to the upper chamber. In the state’s lower chamber, Leigh Finke, a transgender woman, became the first out trans person ever elected to the Minnesota legislature. 

In New Hampshire, James Roesener made history with a victory in his race for the New Hampshire House of Representatives, become the first out transgender man elected to any state legislature in U.S. history. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Keturah Herron, the first and only out LGBTQ person elected to the State House, who won a special election for the House of Representatives earlier this year, managed to hold onto her seat and win a full term.

Lastly, in Texas, Christian Manuel-Hayes and Venton Jones were elected to the State House of Representatives, becoming the first Black out LGBTQ men ever elected to the Texas Legislature. In addition, Jolanda Jones, who became the first Black out LGBTQ person elected to the House earlier this year after winning a special election, won her first full term on Tuesday.

Kierra Johnson, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, said the election results left many “unanswered questions,” with LGBTQ progress clear in some races, and setbacks in others. 

“We all woke up this morning to some exciting wins, some disappointing losses and many unanswered questions. What is undeniable is that our people turned out and prevented what some predicted would be a ‘red wave’ election of the most extreme and anti-progressive candidates,” Johnson said in a statement.

“We know that when young people, LGBTQ people and people of color turn out to the polls and stand against repressive and regressive policies and candidates, we gain victories like the ones we saw in Arizona ,Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Vermont. We held back some attacks on our democracy, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Johnson added. “Now is the time to redouble our efforts, with our eyes and actions toward imminent run-off elections and the road to 2024. We must inspire and grow the participation of fair-minded voters especially in places where we have seen aggressive tactics to silence and disempower our communities. This is just the beginning for us! We are committed to doing all we can to strengthen our country and build a democracy that serves us all.”

Joni Madison, the interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, cast the night’s results as a sign of progress and a testament to high turnout from LGBTQ voters and their allies.

“While we likely won’t know the full outcome of the election for several days, we do know a few things right now,” Madison said in a statement. “We know that extremist candidates didn’t generate the tsunami they were betting on, thanks to the historic turnout of pro-equality, pro-democracy, and pro-choice voters, who showed up to the polls in record numbers to make their voices heard. In some of the most consequential and bellwether races in key battleground states, voters sent a strong message: Extremists, conspiracy theorists, and far-right radicals won’t be readily handed the keys to our democracy — and certainly won’t prevent the gears of progress from turning.

“The reality is that extremists worked overtime this election cycle, pushing discriminatory and inflammatory narratives about LGBTQ+ people, women, and people of color, because they know we are the only thing standing between them and their extremist vision of America,” Madison added. “But as voters made clear tonight — this outdated playbook remained as ineffective as it has in the past.”

Agenda PAC, a political action committee launched in September to help defeat anti-LGBTQ candidates, which was chaired by Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, trumpeted its efforts — with Pennsylvania’s governor’s race serving as its chief test case — as not only successful but potentially a blueprint for defeating other anti-LGBTQ candidates. 

In the Pennsylvania governor’s race and U.S. Senate race, the political action committee launched a six-figure digital ad campaign eviscerating Republicans Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz for promoting a “fascist, anti-truth agenda,” and targeted those ads towards younger voters, particularly in Philadelphia’s “collar counties,” who, based on their voter profiles, were more likely to be LGBTQ-friendly and pro-choice. The PAC also attacked Mastriano with a second wave of digital ads criticizing him for his anti-LGBTQ stances, and did two runs of digital ads on Grindr targeting LGBTQ voters and encouraging them to vote against Mastriano (and presumably, for Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro) on Election Day.

Agenda PAC also targeted the Calvert-Rollins race in California’s 41st Congressional District, with a $25,00 digital ad buy slamming Calvert for long-lingering allegations of corruption during his time in Congress, using double entendres about being “closeted” and “coming out” about his record — in an echo of the anti-gay ads Calvert ran in 1994 outing his then-opponent and now-fellow Congressman Mark Takano. The PAC also put up a billboard reminding travelers to Palm Springs that — despite his recent vote for the Respect for Marriage Act — Calvert had once advocated for banning same-sex nuptials.

“Agenda PAC started because our basic freedoms are under attack and knew we needed to fight back. That’s exactly what we did,” Kenyatta said in a statement. “The stakes were too high to sit this election out. … We’ve just started beating the beatable bigots and we aren’t slowing down.”

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