Despite a night of other historic firsts, Republicans failed to add any openly gay members to their congressional ranks this election.
A pair of highly touted openly gay House Republican candidates fell short: former San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio (R) lost a nail-biter to Rep. Scott PetersScott H. PetersDemocrats brace for toughest stretch yet with Biden agenda Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? MORE (D-Calif.), and former Massachusetts state Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei (R) lost an open-seat bid to Army veteran Seth Moulton (D).
Either would have become the first GOP candidate to be elected to their first term as an openly gay candidate, and the first to serve since Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) retired in 2006.
Gay Republican activists admit they’re disappointed by the dual losses, but they point to the big shift in institutional support toward them as a victory in itself.
The two losses came in spite of major support from establishment Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hosted fundraisers for both candidates in October, and a number of other members of leadership supported and donated to both.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, spent the final weeks of the campaign knocking on doors for DeMaio in San Diego and admitted he had seen firsthand encounters with voters that “homophobia may not be alive and well, but it's most definitely alive among a certain part of the electorate.”
Still, he said the party’s institutional shift was big.
“You had heavy hitters, members of the GOP that are party standard-bearers that not only declared support for their races but gave them major financial backing,” said Angelo.
The two fell short as other Republicans won up and down the ballot, adding both numbers and diversity. House Republicans will have their first black female member in Utah’s Mia Love. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is the first black senator elected from the South since reconstruction. Sen.-elect Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) will be the first female combat veteran in the U.S. Senate.
In spite of the results, the party seems increasingly accepting of differing views on homosexuality and gay marriage.
All five sitting House Republicans who support gay marriage won reelection, and Rep.-elect Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who won a swing South Florida seat, does as well. Former Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.), who told The Hill in late 2013 that he had come around to supporting gay marriage so long as there were protections for religious institutions, also won back his old seat in Congress.
Former Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.), another candidate backed by the Log Cabin Republicans, ran a closing ad featuring her gay son to push back on attacks that she was too conservative. Hayworth fell just short in her rematch with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D), who is openly gay.
But those successes don’t change the results for DeMaio and Tisei. Ultimately, both races were affected more by local scandals than national trends.
Tisei came within 3,500 votes of defeating Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) in 2012, capitalizing on questions surrounding Tierney’s wife’s involvement in helping her brother’s illegal offshore gambling operation. He was back for a rematch in a much more favorable election climate for Republicans.
However, Moulton’s September primary win against Tierney gave Democrats a fresh-faced Army veteran who was much tougher to beat, and Moulton beat Tisei by a double-digit margin in the Democratic-leaning suburban Boston seat.
DeMaio’s race went off the rails because of his own scandals. Two former staffers accused the candidate in the race’s closing days of sexual harassment, including one who came forward just days before the election. The accusations likely cost DeMaio a seat in Congress — Peters leads by roughly 5,000 votes with most of the ballots counted.
“That false smear against me significantly hurt us with older and more conservative Republicans. Our own polling showed that,” DeMaio told The Hill.
DeMaio, who conceded on Sunday after the vote was finally tallied in their San Diego district, accused Peters of playing a role in the scandal. One of the accusers approached Peters’s campaign manager before she connected him with the police.
“Mr. Peters's effort was to put an ick factor on the gay guy, try to peal off conservative voters and encourage them to stay home, and the strategy worked. Every single effort we saw is his efforts to play the gay card certainly had an impact,” said DeMaio. “I never thought this campaign could sink to such a low level of character assassination.”
Peters’s campaign fired back.
“A young man I had never met before reached out to me saying he'd been sexually assaulted and threatened by Carl DeMaio. I was concerned about his welfare and went to the police who thanked me for doing the right thing and asked for my continued cooperation, which I provided,” Peters campaign manager MaryAnne Pintar said in a statement. “As much as Carl DeMaio wants to lay this on others, the facts are that these accusations were not made by me, but by two of Carl’s own former Republican staff who looked up to him and called him a hero. This matter is now in the hands of the FBI.”
Social conservatives are crowing about the results, saying they show the GOP rejects candidates who are too far to the center.
“No one can say in the DeMaio and Tisei races that social issues don't matter. They were defeated because of their positions on gay marriage and abortion. And [Oregon Senate candidate] Monica Wehby was too,” National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown told The Hill. “The other side has had plenty of time to prove the 'abandon the social issues and you win' meme, they've spent over $1 billion on it, and they keep losing.”