Sexual Orientation ‘Nonissue’ on Campaign Trail

Posted July 23, 2012 at 6:14pm

A gay candidate for Congress walks into a bar. No joke: Nothing happens.

A record number of openly gay candidates are running for Congress this cycle, and the reaction, among a huge swath of voters, has been a collective yawn.

“It’s really becoming a nonissue,” Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf explained. “If you look at a lot of these districts where people are running, the fact that they are gay is not really that important to the campaign.”

All across the country, serious contenders for Congress who are openly gay — Democratic and Republican — said their sexual identity plays almost no role in their election efforts.

“No one cares,” said Kyrsten Sinema, who is openly bisexual and a top candidate in the Democratic primary in Arizona’s 9th district. “It’s about my history of work in the district. … They don’t care three straws about the other stuff.”

Other openly gay challenger candidates with a real shot of coming to Congress include: Sean Patrick Maloney, taking on freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth (R) in New York’s 18th district; Mark Pocan (D), running in Wisconsin’s open 2nd district; Mark Takano (D), running for California’s new 41st district; and Richard Tisei (R), taking on Rep. John Tierney (D) in Massachusetts’ 6th district. There are at least four other openly gay Congressional candidates this year, according to a count from the pro-LGBT-equality Human Rights Campaign, but all are long shots in states such as Idaho.

Tisei, who could very well become the only openly gay Republican Member of the 113th Congress, said that while his sexual orientation gets a lot of national media attention, voters are focused on other things, such as the economy.

“It hasn’t come up at all in any way, really, in any conversations I’ve had with voters,” Tisei said, noting that Massachusetts has had legal gay marriage for eight years.

Pocan agreed that the fact that he is openly gay is something that he rarely, if ever, hears about on the trail.

“Given I’m running to succeed Tammy Baldwin, as you can imagine, it’s pretty much a nonissue,” he said.

Baldwin, a lesbian, is running for Senate, while Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank (D), who recently married his longtime partner, is retiring.

Still, members of the LBGT community are hopeful about increasing their ranks in Congress and across all levels of government.

“We’re losing Barney to retirement, and we’re losing Tammy, hopefully, to the United States Senate,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is openly gay and faces a tough re-election battle of his own. “But I think it’s very important to continue to have members of our community in government at all levels. I’m fond of saying if we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.”

Even with a record number of openly gay candidates running for office this cycle, the caucus of openly gay Members in the 113th Congress could fall to just one: Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who doesn’t face a competitive race in November. But given the crop of candidates on the ballot, Polis is likely to have openly gay colleagues next year.

And political observers expect the field of non-heterosexual candidates to continue to grow each cycle.

“Thirty years ago, people thought they didn’t know anybody gay. They had kinds of stereotypes. Now they’re finding out that their brother, son, their cousin, their friend, whoever” is gay, explained Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a strong supporter of LGBT rights.

“The idea of being gay is losing the fear factor, the strangeness factor and people are realizing, they are just ordinary people, good bad or indifferent, like anybody else,” the New York Democrat said between votes Friday.

“That being the case, of course you’re going to see more gay candidates,” he added.

The presence of so many openly gay candidates on the trail this year, including a Republican, is emblematic of the watershed cultural shift that has occurred in Americans’ views of gay people and gay marriage during the past few years.

In 2004, Republicans used ballot initiatives against gay marriage as a wedge issue. Then, 54 percent of Americans believed gay and lesbian relationships were “morally wrong,” according to Gallup polling data. Today, the majority of Americans not only believe that gay and lesbian relationships are “morally acceptable” but that gay marriage should be legal.

Pollsters have been amazed by the speed with which acceptance of gay relationships and gay marriage has grown across most demographic groups.

“Attitudes toward gays in general, toward gay rights, toward gay marriage are all evolving at a much faster rate than really any other issue that we’ve seen in the history in polling “ influential Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.

Mellman explained that the shift was likely the result of a combination of factors, rooted in the larger number of people who come out as gay. “More people know people who are gay, and as people know more people who are gay, they become much more acceptant,” he said.

Gay rights groups hope to see that acceptance permeate Congress more and more as the number of openly gay Members grow.

“The more openly LGBT Members we have in Congress, the more their colleagues will see that our lives are similar to everyone else,” said Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “When they are voting on matters of equality, they will see firsthand how those matters affect people.”

Frank has been surprised by how fast attitudes have shifted.

“Things have moved much more quickly than I thought” they would, he said.

The 16-term Member said he believed that within a decade, the U.S. would have federal anti-discrimination laws that included gay people and that same sex-marriage would be legal in states that have about three-quarters of the country’s population.

“I think that within 10 years, we’ll have won the fight,” Frank said.

But for openly gay candidates on the trail this cycle, they have a smaller fight to win first: their elections.

Justin Worland contributed to this report.