Lasting a mere four seconds, an image in a television advertisement for a San Diego congressional campaign made history last week.
The ad, for former Republican city council member Carl DeMaio, is in many ways a run-of-the-mill American political commercial. Amidst images of an adorable blond toddler running into the arms of her mother on a beach, a cheery voice touts the American people’s “bold” spirit, the country’s “bountiful” future, and DeMaio’s reputation as a “problem solver” who “dared to take on the city’s special interests.” But it also showed something that, at least for a Republican, was a first: DeMaio holding his same-sex partner’s hand, marching in a gay pride parade.
DeMaio, 39, has been openly gay throughout the duration of his political career, and so his sexual orientation had never been a secret among his San Diego constituents. But when he raised the idea of including his partner, Jonathan Hale, in a TV ad for his 2012 race for San Diego mayor, his campaign consultants advised against it. “During the mayor’s race, the consultants pushed back against me campaigning in the gay community and being vocal and I overrode them,” DeMaio says. Yet he ultimately took their advice not to feature his partner in a commercial, a decision he clearly regrets today in that he dumped those consultants for his congressional campaign and prominently featured Hale in last week’s groundbreaking ad.
DeMaio is now part of a new generation of Republicans, gay and straight, seeking to make the issue of sexual orientation a non-issue in American politics. Paradoxically, that means DeMaio is forthright about his sexuality in ways that, were it a heterosexual candidate in the spotlight, no one would bat an eye. Basic things that straight candidates take for granted—appearing at public events with a spouse, featuring a family in campaign literature—are revolutionary. There have only been two openly gay GOP members of Congress, both of whom (former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe and former Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson) were outed long after their initial elections. Campaigning openly with a same-sex spouse is largely uncharted territory for gay Republicans.
DeMaio is part of a bumper crop of openly gay Republicans running for Congress this year, alongside Richard Tisei in Massachusetts and Dan Innis in New Hampshire, all of whom have a good shot at winning. Both DeMaio and Innis are in races categorized as “toss-ups” by the Cook Political Report (DeMaio is running in California’s “jungle primary” system in which the top two candidates proceed to the general election; Innis is facing a former congressman in the Republican primary). Tisei, who was the Massachusetts GOP’s Lieutenant Governor nominee in the 2010 statewide election, is battling again to take the seat of Democratic incumbent John Tierney, to whom he lost by less than 4,000 votes in 2012. Cook determines that race to “lean Democratic.”
As gay Republicans, DeMaio, Innis and Tisei need not only convince the general electorate that they are worthy candidates, but are also many within their own party. Though most Americans today support gay marriage, albeit by a slim majority, the GOP platform stipulates that, “marriage, the union of one man and one woman, must be upheld as the national standard.”
In December, Virginia Republican Randy Forbes spoke out against the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm devoted to electing Republicans to the House, giving support to openly gay candidates. He was unable to persuade House Speaker John Boehner, who, despite opposing same-sex marriage and the repeal of gays serving openly in the military, campaigned for Tisei in 2012. Tisei received support from dozens of House Republicans in that race, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who, like the vast majority of their House Republican colleagues, also oppose gay marriage.
As gay Republicans, DeMaio, Innis and Tisei need not only convince the general electorate that they are worthy candidates, but are also part of a vanguard movement fighting for the soul of the Republican Party.
“The Republican Party stands for small government, individual liberty, and personal freedom for all Americans," says Amos Goodman, a gay New York Republican and Founder of Forward Long Island, a new center-right state PAC. “Locally and nationally, the Party's gotten the message.”
That may be true in the sense that the Republican establishment (embodied by Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy) is willing to support candidates who can win, regardless of their sexual orientation or if their position on same-sex marriage differs from that of the party’s official stance. At the end of the day, a political party’s primary responsibility is to amass power, at which point it can then work to change the country. But the more pragmatic Republian operators must also contend with an emerging purist wing, emboldened by the rise of the Tea Party and other outside expenditure groups, which has been willing to shut down the government in pursuit of its objectives.
These Republicans have no problem losing a congressional race to Democrats if the GOP alternative is too “moderate” or gay, the latter quality a mere euphemism for the former, in the minds of some extreme conservatives.
Moreover, it’s not just social conservatives standing in the way of the gay Republican ascendance, but the progressive left as well. “If anything, the blowback has come from liberal Democrats,” DeMaio says when asked about how his sexuality has impacted his political career. “They are afraid this message could take hold and could allow Republicans to be more effective in advancing fiscal and economic reforms that they oppose.”
DeMaio and Hale were booed at the very 2012 gay pride parade featured in his campaign video—not by anti-gay protesters, but by attendees. That same year, a group deceptively named “Conservatives for Gay Rights Supporting Carl DeMaio for Mayor 2012”—paid for “push poll” robocalls in which DeMaio’s homosexuality was put front and center. The group also paid for pamphlets featuring pictures of DeMaio hugging another man and standing alongside a drag queen, stating, “We conservatives know that liberty means that someone can pick a partner of their choice. We commend Carl on his conservative policies and exercising his liberties.”
Not until after the election—ultimately won by former Democratic Congressman Bob Filner, who resigned last August facing multiple accusations of sexual harassment—was it revealed that Democratic supporters of Filner had funded the shadowy group. The San Diego Ethics Commission fined the political action committee $7,500 for violating campaign finance disclosure laws.
Not long ago, a candidate’s homosexuality would have been considered code for promiscuity and sexual deviance. Yet, the DeMaio-Filner race totally upended our quaint conceptions of sexual propriety in American politics: here was an election in which the real "family values" candidate was a happily-married gay man, and the one completely lacking any ethics or common decency was a tom-catting straight one.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C. the only openly gay candidate among 10 competitors to answer a mayoral candidate questionnaire from the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance received the lowest score. Bruce Majors (full disclosure: my realtor) is a longtime Libertarian Party activist, who in 2012 ran to unseat D.C.’s non-voting delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton. None of Majors’ positions on the GLAA candidate questionnaire could be construed as “anti-gay,” rather, they were deemed insufficiently supportive of the interventionist government policies preferred by the activists comprising the GLAA.
Majors’ opposition to a government-funded Gay Center and preferential hiring practices for LGBT people led the GLAA to dismiss his candidacy. “His and his party's ideological distrust of government is at odds with policies and reforms favored by GLAA,” the organization noted. “Consequently, many of his responses were interpreted as non-responsive or negative.” In other words, because Majors believes that gays are better off under a limited government, his candidacy is not worthy of consideration.
Ric Grenell, who briefly served as the first openly gay spokesman for a Republican presidential nominee (in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign) before resigning after his sexual orientation became a target of some social conservatives, says that liberals are right to fear the rise of the gay right as it could ultimately deprive Democrats of their newfound electoral advantage on gay issues. But that’s only if Republicans are hip enough to embrace equality and render it moot as a partisan issue.
“I’m hopeful that the nominee in 2016 would recognize a lot faster than Romney did that there’s a huge benefit to tell the religious right to deal with it and quiet down,” he says. Grenell, who is now working as an adviser to DeMaio, is using the lessons of his bruising experience on the 2012 campaign trail to help his fellow gay Republican. “Utilize the fact that the gay left doesn’t like it because they find it unacceptable for a gay person to be anything but liberal.”