Openly gay GOP candidates stand up

Courtesy of Carl DeMaio

A trio of openly gay House candidates are aiming to change the face of the Republican Party this fall.

Richard Tisei of Massachusetts, Carl DeMaio of California and Dan Innis of New Hampshire all want to bring a different voice to the GOP caucus if they win their competitive congressional races — a voice they say Democrats don’t want to be heard.

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Tisei came close to breaking the barrier for Republicans in 2012, narrowly losing his election to Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) by 4,330 votes.

He and others are well aware of the stereotypes within their party and the resistance that gay rights face among Republicans. But if one of the three is able to knock off a Democratic incumbent, it could be a defining moment for the GOP.

Tisei, a former state senator and his party’s 2010 nominee for lieutenant governor, said that if any one of them “is able to break through the barrier to talk about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issues as a Republican,” it would be damaging to the Democratic Party as a whole.

DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman running in a highly competitive race against freshman Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), echoed Tisei.

“LGBT progressive Democrats don’t want the Republican Party to change,” he told The Hill in an interview. “They want it to remain the boogeyman” and blame the GOP when progress isn’t made on social issues.

Some LGBT activist groups, including the  Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund,  have not welcomed DeMaio with open arms during his political career. 

“It’s unfortunate, but a lot of these organizations have become extremely partisan,” he said.

In fact, the GOP candidates argue they face more hostility from Democrats than from members of their own party.

“They are being selfish because they are Democrats before they are LGBT activists,” Tisei said.

But openly gay GOP candidates have met resistance within their party, too. In December, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) reportedly spoke out against the GOP campaign arm funding openly gay candidates. Forbes said though the leadership can do what it wants, he is uncomfortable with members being forced to give money to the campaigns. 

The National Republican Congressional Committee backed Tisei in 2012, and he is again a top recruit, along with DeMaio, who got the party’s official backing once he won his primary. The California hopeful  has received the support of a number of national Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).

Democrats argue the GOP’s image on gay rights issues isn’t softening, even with more diverse candidates. 

“The party that spent millions of taxpayer dollars to sue over [the Defense of Marriage Act], opposes [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] and attacks women’s rights at every opportunity is wildly out of touch with Americans and is showing no signs of changing any time soon,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Josh Schwerin said.

Innis likely has the longest road to Congress.  The political newcomer and former business school dean still faces a primary election against former Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) and two other Republicans on Sept. 9. Guinta is the favorite to face Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) in the fall.

Guinta has publicly opposed same-sex marriage, but Innis said the issue has rarely come up even in their primary campaign. 

“The biggest challenge for me is name recognition, and that’s more because I haven’t been in politics,” he said. “The fact that I’m a gay Republican doesn’t factor into the equation for me.”

Putting any hostility they may receive aside, the candidates recognize the historic nature of their campaigns.

Were any of the three candidates to win a seat, he would be the first openly gay Republican to be elected to Congress and the only openly gay Republican currently serving in Congress. Former Rep. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), who retired in 2006, was the last openly gay Republican congressman, but he revealed his sexuality after he was elected. 

“My election, Dan Innis’s, Carl DeMaio’s will go a long way in breaking down barriers and creating understanding, in the process building support within the Republican caucus,” Tisei said. “Just … the fact that we’re there will help bring change.” 

One thing Tisei said he learned from the fight for marriage equality in Massachusetts is that most people change their minds about the issue when they have a personal connection to it and when they know someone who is affected.

“Having an openly gay Republican elected to Congress will really open people’s hearts and minds, in my opinion,” Andrew Powaleny, a GOP strategist and director at The Herald Group, agreed. “It will demonstrate that the Republican Party has a place for all types of individuals and will move away from putting a litmus test on sexual orientation.”

But the candidates stressed that they don’t want to be known as only fighting for LGBT issues. They are open about their sexuality and their views on same-sex marriage, but they emphasized their desire to run on other issues, the ones that affect people’s everyday lives.

“If somebody doesn’t agree with me on gay marriage, it doesn’t mean you poke them in the eye and vilify them,” Tisei said. “There might be another issue like national debt or tax policy that you work with them the very next day on. I’m not going to make this one issue the litmus test on whether I can work with someone on another issue.”

DeMaio even advocates for the GOP to ditch social issues altogether.

“When you take a look at the party today, it stands for freedom, but from excessive taxation,” he said. “If you’re going to stand for freedom in the economic sense, why not in a social sense?”

Innis believes the party is already on the path to being more inclusive, and he isn’t finding his sexuality to be much of an issue in his campaign.

“I have never felt excluded from the party in any way,” he said. “I think the conservative principles that unite us are key, and that’s what we need to focus on.”

Jerri Ann Henry, a Republican strategist and board member for Younger Conservatives for Freedom to Marry, said a win by one or all of these candidates would be a step in the right direction for the GOP in shifting the party’s focus away from same-sex marriage.

“I would rather take this out of the conversation so we can move on to some of the real issues and discuss those,” she said. “I would hate to see Democrats elected because we couldn’t put people in place that reflect our conservative values just because of this issue.”