On a sweltering afternoon in late August, Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat running for Congress against a longtime Republican incumbent, stole a half-hour from a crammed schedule for something that grieving residents of this metropolitan area still routinely do: She visited Pulse nightclub, where a gunman ended 49 lives in June.
The club itself has been closed since then, but a patch of the property in front brims with flowers, photographs and rainbow flags, which signal that Pulse was a place where many gay people gathered and many gay people died. It’s an eye-catching, heart-stopping memorial.
Could it also be an omen of political change?
Prominent among the issues that Murphy, 37, is campaigning on is her 73-year-old opponent’s dismal record on LGBT rights. And some Democrats are convinced that this could work powerfully in her favor, especially at this time, in this place. Her district includes much of Orlando, though not Pulse itself, and is home to victims’ relatives and friends.
Murphy was at Pulse on this day to show it to U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who belongs to a quickly swelling army of party leaders who have traveled to Florida to stump for Murphy or help her raise money, reflecting the party’s identification of her contest as one that might flip a House seat from red to blue and help to erode the Republican majority.
“This is a very winnable race,” Lee told me as we approached Pulse, adding that what happened there — and its exposure of the hatred that LGBT Americans still confront — is part of the equation. “I think people will see that as a defining moment and say: ‘No more. My vote is going to be for human rights.’ ”
Across many decades and hundreds of campaigns at every level of government, LGBT rights have been a point of bitter debate, often benefiting Republican politicians in conservative areas where voters pushed back at social change. In recent years, though, Democrats have increasingly sought to turn their advocacy for LGBT people into an advantage.
Public opinion polls leave no doubt that a significant majority of Americans support laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination and approve of same-sex marriage. But that doesn’t mean that they prioritize the issue and punish politicians with contrary views. The results of many elections suggest that they don’t.
I think that’s changing, and 2016 could be the proof of it. In several closely fought races around the country, candidates’ actions and comments regarding gay people have come to the fore and come to define them. Murphy’s contest against John Mica, now in his 12th term, is only one of them.
The outcomes of two of the most competitive gubernatorial contests — in Indiana and North Carolina — could be affected by voters’ feelings about how the candidates have handled LGBT rights. That’s especially true in North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory is being hammered for a shockingly regressive measure that he signed into law last March.
It hallucinated some grave public danger in transgender people’s using public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity, banned them from doing so, and then went even further, nullifying local ordinances that outlawed employment and housing discrimination against gay and lesbian people.
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“I believe that he started this in order to stir up his right wing and to win this election,” said his Democratic challenger, Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general, when I spoke with him last week. “But it’s backfired on him because it’s backfired on the state.”
In protest of the law, PayPal nixed plans to build a major new operations center in Charlotte. The National Basketball Association relocated an all-star game from North Carolina to another state. Business groups moved conventions. Performers canceled concerts.
Cooper presses the issue all the time, including in a recent debate against McCrory. Polls in August showed him ahead by 1 to 9 points.
As more business leaders stand up for LGBT rights, which they deem important to assembling the best work force and burnishing their brands, more politicians find that their own positions can have a serious impact on their relationship with the corporate community. Being against LGBT rights can complicate any claims they make to being champions of economic growth. It can also depress financial contributions to their campaigns.
Just look at the congressional race in northern New Jersey between Scott Garrett, the Republican incumbent, and Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat.
A little over a year ago, Politico revealed that Garrett was refusing to give what is generally a pro forma donation to the National Republican Congressional Committee because it backed openly gay candidates.
Although Garrett had always had close ties with Wall Street, several big financial institutions stopped donating to his campaign, and that could put Gottheimer, a fundraising whirlwind, on a more equal footing with him than Democratic challengers in previous election cycles. Partly for that reason, political handicappers envision a potentially close contest between him and Garrett, who got at least 55 percent of the vote in 2010 and 2012.
Gottheimer said that news coverage of Garrett’s tussle with his fellow Republicans over gay candidates brought into the light a host of extremely conservative positions — on everything from equal pay and abortion rights to the Confederate flag and global warming — that many of his constituents weren’t wholly aware of.
It has also become a yardstick of Garrett’s humanity. In a recent interview in Paramus, New Jersey, Gottheimer told me that when his campaign did a poll testing which of Garrett’s conservative positions bothered the largely suburban district’s voters the most, “This issue was above everything else.”
“I would have guessed that this would do well with more Democratic-leaning voters,” he said. But, he added, “The whole middle and middle-right were equally offended by this.”
Karen Gerbatsch, 64, a registered Republican who has voted repeatedly for Garrett, told me that when she heard about his disapproval of gay candidates, she thought, “That’s not me.”
“It bothered me a lot,” she added. She said that she’ll vote for Gottheimer, but cited additional reasons, chief among them her concern about the current crop of Washington Republicans amassing too much power, especially if Donald Trump happens to win the presidency.
It’s impossible to isolate the impact of LGBT rights from other factors in these races. Gottheimer, who worked as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is connected to an extensive network of powerful Democrats who have rallied to his cause, and he’s an astute, poised first-time candidate who, at 41, promises a freshness that Garrett, 57, cannot.
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Murphy, another first-time candidate, is competing in a district that the Florida Supreme Court recently redrew so that it’s younger and more Democratic than it was in past elections. Oddsmakers still give Mica the advantage. She has an inspiring family story: Her parents fled the communists in Vietnam by boat when she was just 6 months old. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, she abandoned a lucrative consulting career in the private sector to work for the Department of Defense. She now teaches at Rollins College in Winter Park, which abuts Orlando. She has two young children. And she presents herself — eloquently — as an alternative to Congress’ entrenched ways.
When Trump visited Orlando last month to speak to a conference of leaders who adamantly oppose LGBT rights, she blasted her opponent, Mica, for having endorsed him and presented a litany of Mica’s anti-gay positions and remarks across the years.
Two weeks later, she was the first candidate to be endorsed by a new political action committee called the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, which will raise money for politicians supportive of both LGBT rights and gun control.
Jason Lindsay, the founder and executive director of the Pride Fund, told me that in several visits to Orlando, he has been struck by “the sheer determination” of gays and lesbians there.
“The Pulse attack was incredibly personal,” he said.
At Pulse, I was struck by something that hadn’t been clear to me in news coverage right after the shooting. This gay nightclub shared its stretch of a prominent thoroughfare with a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Radio Shack and, directly across the street, a Wendy’s, with its logo of a pigtailed, red-haired, freckled girl.
It wasn’t off in the shadows but right in the mix — which is where LGBT people are today, and where LGBT rights are in the 2016 election.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for the New York Times.