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The GOP Field In 2012: 'It’s Anything But Gay'

August 29, 2011 10:08 am ET by Kerry Eleveld

LGBT Republicans smell an opening. Obama’s approval ratings are in the tanker – a slim 26% of Americans approve of his handling of the economy following the debt crisis and his favorability ratings in the Democratic stronghold of New York are upside down (45-49)

There’s only one problem. 

“If I were to look at the Republican side, I just don’t see anyone stand out,” says Jeff Westendorf, an Iowa Republican who used to organize the state’s Log Cabin chapter. 

“I can’t support Rick Perry by any means,” Westendorf says. “Romney possibly, although I don’t really know if I know where he stands because I think he wavers toward whatever he thinks will get him elected.” Michele Bachmann? No way. “Although I do think her fiscal message will resonate,” he adds.

But Westendorf is exactly the prototype of what the GOP stands to gain – or lose. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because he’s socially progressive and felt like neither party had differentiated itself on the economy. Replacing the next few Supreme Court justices, he concluded, would be the most consequential decision for the long-term trajectory of the country.

“I voted social issues last time because I looked at the economic landscape and, quite frankly, the GOP hadn’t done us very well either,” says Westendorf, who started a small business managing condominiums shortly after the ’08 election. “They had expanded Medicare, I didn’t agree with [President] Bush on the bail out – I didn’t see them being leaders.”

What a difference a couple years can make. Westendorf believes that government regulation and healthcare reform – President Obama’s hallmark accomplishment – have caused uncertainty in the market that’s hampering economic growth.

Which leaves the Iowa business owner between a rock and a hard place.

“If I vote for the people that I think can carry out the economic policies, I may get stuck with someone who’s 180 degrees from me on social issues,” he acknowledges. “But if I vote for the social issues, I might get stuck with someone who can’t work the economy long term.”

Therein lies the dilemma for the GOP: their core base of firebrand social-issue voters has the potential to pull them right over a cliff, especially on LGBT issues. And that’s a problem. Even with the economy dominating the 2012 cycle, elections are won on the margins, says John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron – particularly in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

“In a close election, you don’t have to move many voters,” Green says, adding that some moderate and independent voters will be moveable on social issues. “In the battleground states,” he says, “it could be crucial.”

Green explains that some voters may not be able to draw a clear difference between Obama and his Republican rival on the economy. “They may say, ‘I don’t like what’s going on with economy, but I’m lost.’ So they’ll rely on another issue, which might be abortion, gay rights, the environment,” he says. “That’s the type of thing that can make a big difference in the general election even if they’re not the dominant issues.”

But one of the main differences this year in terms of LGBT issues is that Republicans aren’t just on the wrong side of history, they’re now decidedly on the wrong side of public opinion. In fact, the American public has moved enough that Green generally views lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights as a net-plus for Democrats. Although same-sex marriage is still somewhat contentious, he says, issues of basic respect and dignity in regards to employment, housing, and health care are no longer up for debate.

“The shift in public opinion on gay issues has made the pluses a little bit better on the Democratic side and probably the minuses a little bit bigger on the Republican side,” Green concludes.

The Bachmann Effect

White Evangelicals are a dependably large voting bloc, accounting for 20 percent of the electorate in the 2004 presidential race and 23% of it in 2008, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

And although they generally vote reliably Republican, Barack Obama managed to capture 26 percent of them in ’08 – five points up from John Kerry in 2004. So while Evangelicals are critical to Republicans, a small slice appears to be somewhat persuadable, which suggests GOP candidates can’t take them entirely for granted.

They are also precisely the type of voters that dictate the Iowa caucus which, for that very reason, is much less determinative of who will win the GOP nomination than the New Hampshire GOP primary – where the voters are more reflective of a broader spectrum of Republican views.

In New Hampshire, for example, turnout for the GOP primary is typically 50% or higher, according to Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. But in places like Iowa, where turnout trends closer to 11-15 percent, Smith says, the typical voter is far more activist in nature and results can be affected by a much smaller group of people.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who cut her teeth on social issues like prohibiting same-sex marriage, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who unofficially kicked off his presidential bid with a Christian-only prayer rally, are both tailor made for Iowa’s ultra-conservative GOP voters.

Bachmann was famously quoted during a 2004 speech lamenting the gay “lifestyle” as “personal bondage.”

“It's a very sad life,” she told a Minnesota audience during the height of the GOP’s national push to prohibit same-sex marriage. “It's part of Satan, I think, to say that this is gay. It's anything but gay. ... It leads to the personal enslavement of individuals. Because if you're involved in the gay and lesbian lifestyle, it's bondage. It is personal bondage, personal despair, and personal enslavement. And that's why this is so dangerous.”

But during an appearance on Meet The Press earlier this month, Bachmann wasn’t so forthcoming. As she endured a barrage of questions from NBC’s David Gregory about her wildly homophobic views, Bachmann maintained her placid sheen, evenly repeating the simple phrase, “I am running for the presidency of the United States.”

“I don't judge them. I don't judge them,” she intoned. “I am running for presidency of the United States.”

That’s her national persona. But traveling around Iowa, Bachmann seemed pretty comfortable meting out harsh judgments – routinely congratulating social conservatives on ousting 3 judges from the state Supreme Court who signed on to a unanimous 2009 decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

“You said enough is enough and sent them packing, and I’m very proud of what you’ve done,” she told a crowd of home-schoolers this spring, repeatedly calling the judges “black-robed masters,” according to Politico.

Expelling the judges was also a subject she seized on during her floor speech at the Ames Straw Poll, which she ultimately won with 29 percent of the vote, narrowly edging out Ron Paul, who garnered 28 percent, and dealing a fatal blow to 3rd-place finisher Tim Pawlenty (14 percent), who ended his bid shortly thereafter. Mitt Romney – widely considered the front runner nationally – placed seventh, but he has not been seriously competing in Iowa; and Rick Perry, who officially entered the presidential field on the day of the poll, made a sixth-place showing as a write-in candidate.

But Bachmann was shrewdly appealing to social conservatives at the straw poll as one of the their own, says David Peterson, associate professor of political science at Iowa State University.

“A lot of that audience had worked on that campaign,” Peterson says of the effort to unseat the judges.

So even as she tries to steer clear of demeaning LGBT people in national venues, Bachmann is burnishing her conservative cred in Iowa, which is the linchpin to her candidacy.

“She’s got to do well here,” Peterson says of the Iowa caucus, “and the way she can do that is with social issues. That’s something she can use to differentiate herself from Perry and Romney.”

But ultimately, a strong Bachmann showing in Iowa could spell trouble for the GOP. The worst-case scenario: Bachmann takes Iowa, Romney wins New Hampshire, and Perry claims South Carolina.

“This would be a disaster for the Republican Party,” Peterson says, referring to the extended campaign that would result. “That would push the candidates to get further out on the extreme to differentiate themselves.” And the more GOP candidates struggle to distance themselves from their opponents, the greater the gulf between them and middle America.

In the latest national Gallup poll released August 24, Perry reshuffled the field after 29 percent of Republicans said they favored him while 17 percent preferred Romney; Ron Paul finished third at 13 percent and Bachmann was fourth with 10 percent.

Romney, so far, has not attempted to compete in Iowa, perhaps because of the traps it held for him during his disastrous 2008 presidential bid. He was the initial favorite in the GOP field nationally that year, but after taking an early lead in New Hampshire polls, his campaign decided to make a play for Iowa too in hopes that they might wrap up the nomination upon taking the first two states.

“I think they made a really bad decision,” says University of New Hampshire’s Smith. “He was campaigning up here as a moderate Northeastern Republican from Massachusetts who at one time favored the expansion of gay rights and was even pro-choice. But then he goes to Iowa and claims to be the most conservative candidate in the race. That left Republicans here saying, ‘Wait a second, that’s not the Romney we know.’”

Romney ended up losing Iowa to Mike Huckabee and creating an opening for John McCain in New Hampshire, which catapulted him to the nomination.

Smith doesn’t anticipate that social issues will figure heavily in New Hampshire’s GOP primary one way or the other. Since both conservative and moderate NH Republicans are focused on fiscal issues, he doesn’t believe the candidates’ positions on LGBT rights or same-sex marriage, which is legal in the “Live Free or Die” state, will hold much sway. But consistency is the key.

“Authenticity of a candidate is more important than their stance on any specific issue,” he says.

Though many political observers thought Romney would try to steer clear of LGBT issues altogether, he did follow the lead of Bachmann and the inimitably homophobic Rick Santorum by signing a pledge from the National Organization for Marriage. Then Perry signed on last week, putting the current front-runners in lock step. The NOM “marriage pledge” theoretically commits the candidate to support a constitutional marriage amendment that would prohibit gay marriage, defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts (reversing the present policy of the Department of Justice), and appoint a presidential commission to “investigate harassment of traditional marriage supporters.”

Smith chalks up Romney’s decision to sign the pledge to playing defense more than offense. From a tactical perspective, Romney doesn’t want to be the candidate who stands out because he hasn’t signed on.

“If he signs it, then it’s largely ignored by the press because he’s in step with every other candidate,” Smith explains.

But any way you slice it, says Smith, Romney leads every GOP demographic group in New Hampshire: women, men, tea party activists, etc.

“It’s not to say that voters here love him or are enthusiastically behind him, but they’re comfortable with him,” says Smith.

Perry is generally an unknown quantity in the state, Smith adds, as is Jon Huntsman.

Perfect On Paper

Utah native Melvin Nimer had never been to the governor’s mansion before even though he had lived in the Beehive State for the better part of six decades.

“I was a bit intimidated,” he said of the 2008 meeting where he and a handful of other Log Cabin officers met with Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. “This was the first time a sitting governor – let alone a Republican governor – had invited anyone from the GLBT community into his office to discuss policy.”

At the time, a number of anti-LGBT measures had been plaguing the state legislature and the divisive signature campaign to place Proposition 8 on California’s ballot that year was in full swing with strong backing from the LDS church, which is headquarted in Salt Lake City.

Huntsman wondered how he could help improve the political climate for LGBT people in the state.

“The first question he asked was, ‘What are the kids doing? What are the youth involved in? What problems do they have,’” recalls Nimer, who is president of LCR’s Utah chapter. “Then he came up with the idea of having a party at the mansion.”

The inaugural LGBT reception at the governor’s mansion was held that summer with more than 75 guests and has since become an annual event that now draws around 150 people.

In 2009, Huntsman would voice support for a series of pro-LGBT measures known as the Common Ground Initiative aimed at securing basic rights for LGBT Utahans in areas such as employment, housing, transfer of benefits and medical-decision making. Huntsman would also endorse civil unions that year, despite the fact that 70 percent of Utah residents opposed them at the time.

Last month, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity asked Huntsman whether his support for civil unions would be a drag on his candidacy.

“I am where I am on civil unions. Some will like it. Some won't,” Huntsman responded forthrightly. “I'm a traditionalist when it comes to marriage, but I think subordinate to marriage, we have not done an adequate job in terms of equality and fairness when it comes to reciprocal beneficiary rights.”

For obvious reasons, Huntsman has wide appeal among gay Republicans who know of him. From 2005-2009, he presided over the best job-growth rate in the nation, according to an analysis by the National Review. Huntsman’s also shown a willingness to rise above party politics: he was the only GOP candidate to support the recent compromise that averted the debt crisis, and he agreed to serve as President Obama’s ambassador to China, an unusual move for an aspiring Republican presidential candidate in a Democratic administration.

Huntsman has adopted the posture of being the adult in the field, which sometimes has the undesirable effect of failing to generate excitement. But he recently took a swipe at Perry after the Texas Governor expressed doubts about global warming and evolution. Huntsman apparently became a twitter sensation after tweeting: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

He seems the perfect fit for New Hampshire moderates but continually hovers below 5 percent in University of New Hampshire polls. He’s also the candidate Jeff Westendorf of Iowa appears to be looking for but, Westendorf says, “He’s just not getting enough mainstream exposure – I don’t really know much about him.”

Then again, says one gay Republican, “Remember where John Kerry was at this point in the campaign – John who?”

Actually, Kerry was running third at about 13 percent in the summer of 2003 ­– quite a bit better than Huntsman. But Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was still a Democrat, seemed to be sitting pretty at 20 percent and Congressman Dick Gephardt (Dick who?) was holding steady in second at 15 percent.

Point taken – politics is a game of wild cards and this year’s Republican field has plenty of them, especially in the realm of LGBT issues.

One of them is Fred Karger, a gay Republican who is running for the nomination, who is still trying to break into a GOP debate to spice up the conversation a bit.

“My goal is to get into a debate,” says Karger, adding that that’s been his focus since day one of his campaign.

He seems to be gaining ground. The criteria for qualification varies with each debate and he says he didn’t legitimately qualify for the first one hosted by CNN. But Karger contends that he met the bar for the Fox News/Washington Examiner debate earlier this month by registering above one percent in five national polls and, since he was not allowed to participate, he has now officially filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. His hope? That he will fight his way into one of three upcoming debates in September.

“If I can get into one of these debates and stand out as a different type of candidate,” he says, “my name ID could go from one-to-two percent to much higher – double digits.”

As Karger sees it, that could amount to future debates and the opportunity to impact the dialogue around LGBT issues in front of a national audience. It could also give his lean campaign operation enough money to stay in the race indefinitely.  “Ron Paul raised $8 million in one night with a good debate performance,” he says, harkening back to 2008. “If I had one-tenth of that, I’d be thrilled.”

The libertarian-minded Paul, of course, is also making his mark this year with some second- and third-place showings in various polls. But political insiders can’t see him getting much more than 30 percent in any given primary, which is respectable but essentially dooms his candidacy. Paul advocates for the government staying out of people’s personal lives, which generally makes him more palatable to LGBT Republicans than many of his GOP counterparts. He believes “marriage” should be left to churches, and true to form, Paul does not  support a federal marriage amendment, which separates him from Bachmann, Perry, and Romney.

Another wild card is just how far these Republican candidates can get out on the edges of anti-gaydom before they bounce themselves from the general election entirely.

Santorum is already traversing the hinterlands, interjecting his views about gays and same-sex marriage at every juncture. One has to wonder if that’s why his candidacy looks like an exercise in self-aggrandizing futility. Even the Fox News/Washington Examiner debate moderators seemed to simply be humoring the candidate as Santorum huffed and puffed about not getting enough face time on stage.

But, for instance, Perry’s signature prayer event – “The Response” – was largely organized by the top lieutenants of a fringe Christian group known as the International House Of Prayer (IHOP), which has nothing to do with anything so innocuous as pancakes and is unofficially led by Lou Engle (video of Engle preaching here).

Engle traveled to Uganda to headline a prayer rally during the height of a debate over a bill that proposed capital punishment for gay Ugandans in certain circumstances. Despite the fact that the bill had become the subject of international controversy and was condemned by the Obama administration as well as many Evangelical ministers, Engle continued spreading his homophobic message (video available here).

Then there’s Michele Bachmann, who has undoubtedly left a treasure trove of untoward anti-LGBT deeds in her wake. Journalists have already delighted in her stealth appearances in the bushes, stalking pro-LGBT rallies. And her husband Marcus, a Christian therapist, has already come under scrutiny for promoting the harmful and discredited practice of performing gay-to-straight conversions at his clinic.

While opposition research is surely in full swing in every camp, Iowa State’s Peterson doubts that any problematic anti-gay content will make a national campaign ad in the general election. Rather it would be targeted to the voters who will find it most objectionable.

“To the extent that a candidate like Bachmann goes too far, the Obama campaign will make a concerted effort to reach younger voters to push that message,” Peterson explains. “It will never be a TV ad. It will be a Facebook ad. It will be a direct mailer. But it will never be something that dominates the media narrative.”