With the 2018 congressional mid-terms fast approaching, a record number of LGBT candidates are seeking election to all levels of government ranging from federal office to state attorney general, many under a banner of challenging President Trump.
Amid expectations of a “blue” wave of Democratic wins in November, political observers say wins for these LGBT candidates constitute a “rainbow” wave and break pink ceilings in races where no LGBT candidate has won before.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which endorses LGBT candidates, has backed 218 candidates so far in the 2018 cycle. That’s up from the 160 candidates the Victory Fund endorsed in 2016 and the 162 it endorsed in the 2014 cycle.
Annise Parker, a lesbian former mayor of Houston and CEO of the Victory Fund, said in an interview with the Washington Blade her organization endorsed slightly half of “an unprecedented number” of more than 430 openly LGBT candidates running this cycle.
“It’s part of a larger surge of candidates who are women candidates, who are people of color, candidates who are from immigrant communities — all of whom feel they are under attack and want to have a place in the political process to push back on some of the rollbacks on civil rights,” Parker said.
Among the candidates Victory Fund has endorsed this cycle are 13 candidates running for federal office, including two running in U.S. Senate races, four candidates running for governor, as well as candidates seeking state legislative seats and statewide office.
Another factor in having a record number of openly LGBT candidates running for office, Parker said, is the success enjoyed by previous LGBT candidates who sought office and won elections.
“Success breeds more candidates who want to obtain that same success,” Parker added.
In the aftermath of the 2018 primary season, the Democratic National Committee is claiming an even broader number of at least 126 LGBT candidates this cycle as a result of these hopefuls winning the Democratic nomination in their states.
The portion of non-incumbents in this list is high. Of the 19 openly LGBT people nominated by Democrats for federal office, 14 are non-incumbents. Of the 13 openly LGBT people nominated by Democrats for statewide office, nine are incumbents.
Democrats also nominated at least 101 openly LGBT non-incumbents for state legislative seats across 32 different states and U.S. territories, according to the DNC.
Lucas Acosta, director of LGBTQ media for the DNC, said the party is proud of the number of LGBT candidates running under the Democratic banner this election cycle.
“In 2018, LGBTQ Democrats are stepping up to the plate, making history, and breaking records,” Acosta said. “Our community deserves a seat at every table and a voice in every legislature. Too often, decisions about us are made without us. That’s why the DNC is excited to support LGBTQ candidates up and down the ballot across the country.”
Many of these LGBT candidates would achieve significant milestones by winning elections no LGBT person has won before:
• Two candidates — Jared Polis and Lupe Valdez — could be the first openly gay people to win elections as governor. Polis is running in Colorado and Valdez is running in Texas.
• Another candidate, Christine Hallquist, is running in Vermont and could be the first openly transgender person to be elected and serve as governor.
• In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown is seeking re-election after being appointed to office and winning election to one term. Brown, who was the first openly LGBT and first out bisexual to win election as governor, would be the first openly bisexual person to win re-election as governor.
• In Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema could be the first openly bisexual person elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate. Also running for re-election to the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin is Tammy Baldwin, an LGBT favorite and the longest-serving openly gay member of Congress.
• Two candidates — Ricardo Lara and Nelson Araujo — could the first openly gay people of color to win election to statewide office. Lara is running in California to become insurance commissioner and Araujo is running in Nevada to become secretary of state.
• The 14 non-incumbent openly LGBT Democratic nominees running for federal office could significantly shake up LGBT representation in Congress if they each won. Those wins would more than triple the current number of eight lesbian, gay and bisexual lawmakers serving in the House and Senate.
In the aftermath of primary season, Democrats have nominated for governor one candidate for each letter of the LGBT acronym. Valdez represents the lesbian community in Texas, Polis represents the gay community in Colorado, Brown represents the bisexual community in Oregon and Hallquist represents the transgender community in Vermont.
Parker said LGBT candidates are “achieving milestones just by sheer number of people running,” but particularly in those gubernatorial races.
“With four candidates interestingly representing every aspect of the alphabet — lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender,” Parker said. “We’ve broken a milestone just by them becoming nominees whether or not they win in November.”
Parker said the LGBT women candidates are poised to make great strides in the upcoming election as female candidates generally have won over male contenders in the 2018 primary season. Among them are Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Air Force veteran running for Congress in Texas, and Angie Craig, who’s running for election to Congress in Minnesota after losing by one point in 2016.
“Whether lesbian or bisexual or straight, women candidates are outperforming male candidates in most races,” Parker added.
In contrast to the wide array of LGBT candidates the Democrats have nominated for office, the Republican Party’s embrace of LGBT candidates is much smaller. There has always been a significant disparity in the number of LGBT candidates nominated by the parties, but Republicans have in years past usually at least fielded one openly LGBT candidate, such as perennial Massachusetts congressional candidate Richard Tisei.
The Victory Fund — which as a bipartisan organization has traditionally endorsed Republican LGBT candidates as long as they support LGBT rights — has thrown its support behind five GOP contenders this cycle, four of whom will be on the ballot in November.
But Parker said the number and nature of LGBT candidates running on the Republican ticket has declined from previous years.
“There was a slow rise of Republican congressional nominees,” Parker said. “For example, in 2012, there was one, in 2014, there were two, in 2016, there were three. Unsuccessful, but they were running. This year there were none.”
Parker attributed the lack of LGBT candidates running under the Republican banner to the anti-LGBT policies of the GOP and Trump administration.
“It’s not there aren’t LGBT Republicans,” Parker said. “I think the Republican Party is making it harder and harder for mainstream, fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidates to get elected and there are candidates either choosing to stay closeted or switch parties or not run.”
Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, said LGBT candidate recruitment “has never been the mission of Log Cabin Republicans,” but disputed the notion LGBT Republican candidates are in decline.
“There were a number of gay Republicans running for federal office this year, all of whom Log Cabin Republicans was tracking; unfortunately none emerged victorious in their primaries,” Angelo said.
Significant attention is also being placed on transgender candidates, who previously had infinitesimal representation in public office. That changed in 2017 after Virginia State Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) became the first openly transgender person elected and seated to a state legislature and other transgender candidates won in local races.
The Victory Fund has endorsed 11 transgender candidates this cycle, eight of whom will be on the ballot in November. The most high profile is Hallquist’s quest for the governorship in Vermont.
Parker credited Hallquist for being nominated in “the highest level race” for a transgender candidate and being “a well-qualified candidate, very comfortable with the issues in Vermont and well known in the state.”
“The fact that voters in Vermont got behind an openly trans candidate in a big way and carried her to a primary victory and positioned her to be the Democratic nominee as governor is…a new milestone for the community,” Parker said.
Drawing a distinction between transgender candidates and the decline in LGBT Republicans candidates, Parker said “there are more out trans elected officials than out Republican LGBT elected officials.”
But being nominated for public office is one thing and winning the election is another. Many of these LGBT candidates face daunting odds in winning election in November and may have to rely on the boost from the expected “blue” wave to achieve victory. Among them is Hallquist, who’s running against a popular GOP incumbent in Vermont.
In Texas, a Quinnipiac poll found Valdez is significantly behind Gov. Texas Greg Abbott, who as part of a significant anti-LGBT record made an unsuccessful attempt at passing anti-trans bathroom legislation a priority. Abbott leads Valdez 58–39 percent among likely voters.
But in Arizona, a new CNN poll this week shows Sinema leading Republican opponent Martha McSally by seven points, 50-43.
Parker cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the need for these candidates to win election to make an impact.
“Don’t discount the fact that they run and whether or not they win or lose,” Parker said. “If they run good races and address issues important to their constituents, they are plowing the ground for the next wave of candidates, and the next and the next.”
Still, Parker acknowledged wins for these candidates would be significant, especially if they’re part of a “blue” wave that wins a majority in the U.S. House, or even the U.S. Senate, in November.
“Many of them are in marginal seats, ‘red’ to ‘blue’ seats,” Parker said. “If they win their seats, they’re going to be part of the Democratic wave that looks poised to sweep into Washington and if there’s a change in leadership in the House of Representatives, it creates a whole new ball game.”