Gay Republican candidates for Congress came up short in 2014, but they’re trying again in 2016.
Republican Ben West, whose lawsuit led to the end of Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage, told The Hill he’s launching a bid Wednesday for the GOP nomination in his state’s 5th Congressional District — a seat held since 2009 by Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, co-chairman of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition.
“There is a conviction in my heart that a limited government is the key to unlocking everybody’s potential.”
The 37-year-old West, a nursing student, is part of a new crop of openly gay Republican congressional candidates who are hoping to change the composition of the Grand Old Party on Capitol Hill. Democrats count seven LGBT lawmakers among their ranks, but there is not a single openly gay Republican in Congress. The most recent was Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, who retired in early 2007.
This year, Republican Sheriff Paul Babeu, who was outed in 2012 by his ex-boyfriend, is running for an open seat in Arizona. Professor and businessman Dan Innis is seeking a primary rematch against Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.). And Jacquie Atkinson, a gay Marine Corps combat veteran, is running to unseat Rep. Scott Peters
(D-Calif.), who narrowly defeated another gay Republican, Carl DeMaio, in a vicious race two years ago.
Lawyer Chrys Kefalas, another gay Republican, is vying for the chance to replace retiring Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiMikulski on Warren flap: Different rules apply to women It's not just Trump's Cabinet but Congress lacks diversity The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Md.).
“I was really disappointed the glass ceiling wasn’t
broken last time. We need a seat at the table,” said DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman who often discusses LGBT issues on his talk radio show in Southern California. “The party does need to evolve. The only way you do that is get people inside the party who are able to touch hearts and change minds.”
However, anti-gay rhetoric from many of the GOP’s presidential contenders appears to be complicating that effort.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich earned praise from the community last summer after
saying he would still love and accept one of his daughters if she came out as gay.
But he’s proved to be the exception.
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's next immigration challenge may be beyond the northern border Five big Trump narratives to watch Trump: Media trying to justify 'large scale immigration in Sweden' MORE said he would “strongly consider” appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn the ruling legalizing same-sex marriages. Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump to interview four candidates for national security adviser Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at CPAC Reports: Petraeus off the list, Trump down to three candidates to replace Flynn MORE (R-Texas), who won the Iowa caucuses, called the 2015 ruling the “very definition of tyranny.”
This week in New Hampshire, a gay man confronted Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGOP loses top Senate contenders How does placing sanctions on Russia help America? Republicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy MORE, asking why the Florida Republican wanted to put him “back in the closet.” During the tense exchange, Rubio replied: “I just believe marriage is between one man and one woman.”
West and his now-husband Paul Rummell burst onto the national political scene in late 2013 when they challenged the state of Oregon’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. A federal judge struck down the ban in 2014, and West appeared in a campaign ad for Republican Monica Wehby, a supporter of gay marriage who was defeated by incumbent Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySenate advances Trump's Commerce pick Senate confirms Pruitt to lead EPA Democrats want Pruitt vote delayed over emails MORE (D-Ore.).
Though he’s now one of Oregon’s most recognizable gay-rights advocates, West is looking past all the anti-gay rhetoric from the presidential primary.
“I’m running my race,” he
Still, he noted how diverse the GOP presidential field is: Both Cruz and Rubio are Cuban-Americans, Ben Carson is a respected African-American neurosurgeon and Trump is a successful businessman from New York.
“On the Democrat side, you have two re-treads with no new ideas. On the Republican side, you really see big-tent party on display,” West said.
A fourth-generation Oregonian, West lives in the Portland suburb of Wilsonville with Rummell and their 10-year-old adopted son, who is African-American. The candidate spent more than a decade in banking but recently went back to school to get his nursing license.
Schrader, a veterinarian, has won all of his past four races by sizable margins. But Republicans still think they have a pick-up opportunity: In 2012, voters in Oregon’s 5th district narrowly favored President Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, 50.5 percent to 47.1 percent.
Before he can take on Schrader, West will first have to beat out several challengers in the May 17 GOP primary. Anti-abortion-rights advocate Colm Willis and mental health worker Seth Allan have a head start on West.
“I think I’m absolutely electable,” West said. “I’m not running because I want to be the first gay candidate in Oregon. I’m running because where there are problems in your community, I think good men need to stand up and take those problems head on.”
The House GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), is run by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who declined to comment for this story. While the NRCC isn’t endorsing in the primary, officials did ask DeMaio to reach out to West and other gay candidates running this cycle, DeMaio said.
The advice he’s offered them: Work your tail off, get out there and meet voters and don’t sweat the small stuff.
“People say vicious things that are not true and that are hurtful. You have to run a campaign that is reflective of your character,” said DeMaio, whose 2014 candidacy was derailed by sexual assault allegations from a former campaign aide. The aide later admitted he lied to authorities about receiving email threats from DeMaio.
“There are groups on the left who do not want to see a gay Republican. They will engage in horrific, untrue smears,” DeMaio added. “Democrats will play the homosexual card very effectively.”