Many news outlets have marveled at the lack of gay-bashing by Republicans this election season. What they’ve missed, however, is that the few Congressional candidates who worked hardest to leverage pro-LGBT issues in 2014 were, in fact, Republicans—a pattern that will likely repeat in the years to come.
Case in point: GOP candidate Nan Hayworth in New York’s Hudson Valley. Hayworth, who represented the 18th District from 2011 to 2013, had been attacked as a darling of the Tea Party by a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad that featured her saying, “I am proud to be a radical.” As she labored to close the gap on her openly gay opponent, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the final ad of her campaign was an attempt to soften her image by introducing her gay son to voters.
“As a gay man, coming to terms with who I am wasn’t easy. But my parents love me for who I am and for whom I love,” Will Hayworth said in the ad. “Nan Hayworth is no extremist,” he added. “She’s my mom. She’s kind. She’s compassionate. She’s always been there for me. And she’ll always be there for you.”
Meanwhile, in Oregon, Republican Senate candidate Dr. Monica Wehby made a similar effort to push back on charges that she was too conservative for Beaver State voters. Wehby, who is a pediatric neurosurgeon, was facing off against Sen. Jeff Merkley, chief sponsor of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which cleared the Senate late last year but stalled in the House. In September, Wehby launched an ad featuring a gay couple, Ben West and Paul Rummell, who joined the successful legal challenge to end Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage.
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“Marrying my husband was the happiest day of my life,” said West in the ad. “But there’s a lot of work left to do. Whether it’s standing up for equality, for the unemployed, or for the next generation, we need leaders who have the courage to do what’s right.” West concluded the spot by saying that Wehby will “fight for every Oregon family, including mine.”
In both these cases, Republicans in blue-leaning states worked to build their credibility among the electorate by touting LGBT issues. And for Hayworth, it nearly worked—helping her to shave Rep. Maloney’s lead to just one point on Election Day. (Though 100 percent of the votes had been counted, Hayworth still hadn’t conceded early Wednesday morning.) It’s a distinct turnaround from 2010, when Republicans like former Sen. Jim DeMint and New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino were still stoking animosity against gays.
Political operatives say that these maneuvers reflect a slowly shifting stance from the Republican party. “We’ve seen unprecedented levels of support for LGBT freedom from Republican candidates this cycle,” Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to the conservative pro-LGBT American Unity PAC, told Rewire. “The GOP is in the midst of a generational transition on these issues, and Republicans are increasingly comfortable standing out as part of the inclusive emerging majority.”
Beyond whom they featured in their advertisements, Hayworth and Wehby have both been moderate on LGBT issues. Hayworth had a decent record for a Republican during her two-year turn in the House of Representatives before losing her seat to Maloney. In the 112th Congress, she received a 71 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign and twice provided something that is often in short supply in the House—Republican sponsorship of pro-LGBT bills. During the campaign, Hayworth declined to come out in favor of marriage equality nationwide. But she did say she supported the recent decision by the Supreme Court to let stand several rulings that significantly expanded marriage equality rights.
Wehby had also indicated her personal support for the freedom to marry. But prior to the federal district court ruling in favor of marriage equality, she stopped short of endorsing a ballot measure that would have legalized it across the state.
“Personally, I don’t have any problem with gay marriage,” Wehby still told Oregon Public Broadcasting Radio on May 6, 2014, a few weeks before the court ruled in favor of marriage equality. “I don’t think that the government should be involved in our personal lives. I am a small-government person, and our country was founded on personal freedom and being able to be who you are.”
Democratic candidates, for their part, didn’t entirely shy away from LGBT issues. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, for instance, trumpeted his support for marriage equality in one debate. (He kept his seat in the election.) But they also didn’t necessarily push them into the forefront.
Overall, the main reason Democrats didn’t exude more pro-LGBT sentiment this election was because the vast majority of close Senate races featured Dems playing defense in red states. Since midterm demographics generally skew older and whiter, especially in the South, Democrats in conservative areas likely made the calculation that they couldn’t gin up support by championing LGBT issues.
But 2016 presents an entirely different prospect, with the onus falling more heavily on GOP candidates to hang on to their territory in blue states. In fact, Senate Republicans will be defending seats in seven states that Obama carried in 2012. Just like former Rep. Nan Hayworth, most of those candidates were swept into office on the Tea Party wave of 2010. So if Hayworth serves as a test case—and, given her near-victory on Tuesday night, it’s not improbable—get ready to see a lot more pro-gay appeals from Republicans.
What will be interesting to see in 2016, then, is whether Senate Democrats will try to capitalize on their pro-LGBT legacy and how Republican presidential candidates will approach marriage equality as it recedes as a divisive issue in most blue states. Even in red ones, any statewide candidate that explicitly rails against it risks dooming their chances with young voters.
In fact, even when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in rulings that struck down marriage bans in five states—a ruling that would have surely triggered an October surprise just a handful of years ago—the GOP remained startlingly silent. One of the only Republicans who tried to capitalize on the issue, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, wasn’t on the ballot this year. But Tea Partier Ted, too, seems to be softening his stance: After issuing a statement calling the court’s action “tragic and indefensible,” Sen. Cruz moderated his position a couple weeks later in an appearance on CNBC.
“What the Supreme Court did—effectively striking down the laws of 30 states—was wrong and it was judicial activism,” Cruz said. However, he added, marriage should be left up to each individual state. “If the citizens of New York decide they want gay marriage, they have the constitutional authority to make that decision; and if the citizens of Texas or South Carolina or Florida decide they want to maintain traditional marriage between one man and one woman, they have that constitutional authority.”
This year’s election will be remembered for several strange developments. Among them: a female Senate candidate who wooed Iowa men to her side by talking up her castrating skills; the fact that a party with approval ratings hovering in the low 20s managed to emerge with total dominance of Congress; and the reality that Republicans spent more energy bolstering their pro-LGBT cred than Democrats.
The first two will likely prove to be anomalies of the 2014 midterms. But with an election map favoring Democrats, expect to see more pro-LGBT talk from Republicans in 2016.