How LGBT Candidates Won So Big on Election Night

LGBT candidates won across the board on election night, with the headline-making success of Danica Roem and other trans candidates at the forefront.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

The victories for LGBT candidates on election night 2017 seemed as sudden as lightning bolts.

Early in the night, Danica Roem won a closely watched Virginia House of Delegates Race, and is now set to become the first openly transgender elected and seated state legislator in the country, beating self-declared “chief homophobe” and bathroom-bill author Bob Marshall.

Not long afterward, Andrea Jenkins won a seat on the Minneapolis city council, making her the first openly transgender black woman to win an election. At the end of the night, Seattle got its first lesbian mayor in former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan.

But in reality, these wins were a long time coming.

“We actually trained them, developed them, [and] gave them their campaign boot camp skills when they expressed interest initially over a year ago,” Victory Fund president Aisha C. Moodie-Mills said of the Roem and Jenkins races in a phone interview, noting that “these were not Hail Mary longshots by any stretch of the imagination.”

The Victory Fund, which works to elect LGBT candidates and trains them through partner organization the Victory Institute, had branded 2017 in particular as “the year of the transgender candidate”—a prediction that came true Tuesday night.

In addition to Roem and Jenkins, five other transgender candidates won their contests: Tyler Titus became the first openly transgender elected official in Pennsylvania by winning a slot on the Erie School Board, Lisa Middleton—as the Desert Sun put it—became “the first transgender person elected to a non-judicial office” in California after winning her election to the Palm Springs city council, a transgender woman in Georgia named Stephe Koontz narrowly won her race to serve on the city council in Doraville, and Gerri Cannon won a New Hampshire school board race. The icing on the cake: Early Wednesday evening, Andrea Jenkins was joined by out black transgender man Phillipe Cunningham, who also won a spot on the Minneapolis City Council.

Before last night, the Victory Fund estimated that there were only six openly transgender elected officials in the country; that number will now be more than doubled. It is an unprecedented and dramatic election night result, but it is also totally explainable.

“We don’t know of another election year when six trans candidates won,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality told The Daily Beast, in an interview that took place shortly before the official tally reached seven. “Part of that is we’re coming into our own as a community and we have some really great folks who have emerged—but it’s also simply because a lot more good folks ran.”

Moodie-Mills told The Daily Beast that the Victory Fund started seeing more and more transgender candidates expressing interest in political contests after the events of 2016. Not only did state legislators across the country file a record 44-anti-transgender bills that year in the wake of the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, Donald Trump won the presidential election after running on an anti-LGBT GOP platform.

The Trans United Fund, the first bipartisan transgender political action committee, was also formed in 2016 and supported candidates in this year’s contests.

“What we saw after 2016 is a huge surge in transgender people saying, ‘You know what? I am going to stand up and I am going to run for office and I am literally going to be the change that we need to see.’” Moodie-Mills recalled.

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Nowhere was that causality more apparent than in the Roem-Marshall race in which—as lovers of schadenfreude everywhere have already observed—a transgender woman literally took the job of the man who had introduced a law targeting her restroom use.

But while the Roem race arguably received the most attention out of all these local races on Tuesday night, the Victory Fund also reported dozens of wins for their endorsed candidates—35 by their count at 1:22 AM Tuesday night, with a handful of additions trickling in on Wednesday. These wins will send more LGBT Americans to city councils, school boards, and mayoral offices in cities as far-ranging as Toledo, Lansing, and Miami Beach. It was an LGBT rout in an election that saw widespread victories for progressive minority candidates.

Jenny Durkan’s victory in the Seattle mayoral race is particularly significant because she will not only be one of two lesbian mayors of major cities in the country, she will also be Seattle’s first female mayor to be elected since 1926. As the Seattle Times noted, homelessness and housing—not Durkan’s sexual orientation—were the key issues in that contest.

Most other races involving LGBT candidates followed that same pattern; the candidate’s sexual orientation and gender identities were, by and large, not being turned into campaign issues. In fact, one of the reasons the Roem election drew so much advance press was because Marshall repeatedly attacked her gender identity, using male pronouns for her in public statements, and misgendering her in a campaign mailer.

Marshall even went so far as to say that Roem’s identity “clearly goes against the laws of nature and nature’s God” in an interview with the Washington Post.

That kind of rhetoric, as Moodie-Mills told The Daily Beast, was unusual in the races that the Victory Fund was monitoring.

“There are still some attacks on our candidates,” she acknowledged, but emphasized that the Victory Fund has seen” a remarkable deflation of the vitriol against our candidates over the last few cycles” as opponents realize they gain less and less political capital from attacks on LGBT Americans.

Indeed, as The Daily Beast previously reported, the primary lesson that LGBT rights groups drew from Roem’s win was that, as Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin put it, the “days of attacking LGBTQ [people] for votes are over.”

“That is why, last night, Danica’s race was so critical and impactful,” Moodie-Mills added. “We reminded America that bigots are on notice, that we are not going to sit idly by anymore, that we have no patience and tolerance as Americans for hateful, nasty, vicious vitriol.”

Conversely, that means LGBT candidates are finding success not for their precedent-setting and headline-generating identities, but based on their political strength.

Keisling cited Gerri Cannon’s school board race as an example, noting that she “wasn’t saying, ‘Vote for me because I’m trans,’ she was saying, ‘I’m the best person for the school board.’” That theme was also observed in the Roem election, where the transgender candidate focused mostly on the congestion plaguing a local road in Virginia.

Overall, Keisling believes that 2017 has seen “a really high caliber of [transgender] candidate” in particular, waxing effusive during her interview with The Daily Beast about Lisa Middleton’s qualifications, Danica Roem’s “hustle” and Andrea Jenkins’ history of activism and public service. She believes that even opponents of LGBT equality in state and local government will learn something from their new colleagues.

“These are super strong, super powerful, super smart folks who are just really going to impress the people that they work with,” she said, adding, “It’s going to help the dinosaurs see what’s happening [in the country]—and probably accept it better.”

But Keisling warned that, while several important precedents were set on election night 2017, they are baby steps in the grand scheme of things.

“We’re still dramatically underrepresented,” she said. “I mean, six is amazing and these six folks are just fabulous. These were really great candidates; they’re not enough.”

And if election night 2017 seemed to bring a deluge of transgender elected officials to the forefront—and an increase in LGBT politicians more broadly—Keisling believes that 2018 holds even more surprises in store.

“This is definitely not even the end of the beginning yet,” she said.