How Do You Solve a Problem Like Michele Bachmann?
With the 2014 midterms and a round of state-level races, this could become the first election cycle to test whether being antigay is a political liability.
Common wisdom nowadays says that public opinion polls have changed so dramatically it's safe for politicians to support marriage equality. For the first time, a majority in the U.S. Senate support the freedom to marry and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (not that a simple majority wins you much in the Senate). On top of public opinion, President Obama won reelection while backing same-sex marriage. Perhaps the strangest sign of the times was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts telling Edie Windsor's lawyer during a hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act that "political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case."
Still, no one has really tested whether it's become unacceptable to be antigay, or to what degree is too far. Most activists can't recall an attack ad — which are so ubiquitous in politics — being run against a candidate's extreme views on LGBT equality.
Not even outgoing Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann faced an attack in 2012 over her homophobic reputation. Bachmann authored a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in her state, and she not only believes gay people can be turned straight, but the Christian counseling clinic she and her husband own was caught offering patients "reparative therapy" by activists wearing hidden cameras. The list goes on and on, and yet Bachmann won four terms in Congress.
But if Bachmann had not bowed out of the latest reelection effort, or if by some long shot she opts to run statewide against Al Franken for U.S. Senate, things might be different — for her and others in the homophobic wing of the GOP.
"I think that the fact she is still involved, with her family business in conversion therapy, is a huge marker of a person who is completely out-of-step with the American public," said Aaron Wells, the campaign manager for Jim Graves, who nearly beat Bachmann in 2012 and was set to take her on again. Wells says that if Bachmann, or a candidate like her, decided to run against Sen. Al Franken statewide, she would "definitely" face attacks over being antigay.
Wells said the campaign's internal polling found that "even conservatives in her district were turned off" by the tone of Bachmann's opinions on equality for gays and lesbians.
Bachmann is perhaps the most visible archetype of the antigay Republican, but there are others. Rep. Steve King has a long record of antigay statements, including suggesting gay and lesbian employees should stay closeted if they don't want to get fired. King was considered among possible contenders for a Senate seat in Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal, but he decided not to throw his hat into the electoral ring.
The race that activists now consider most likely to draw attention in 2014 is in the swing-state of Virginia. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is running for governor and recently made headlines by suing to reinstate a criminal ban on sodomy. He was a central figure in banning gays and lesbians from adopting in his state. And he ordered state universities to repeal antidiscrimination rules that protected LGBT students, saying they went too far because Virginia doesn't outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Meanwhile, for the first time ever, the Democratic candidate for governor is for marriage equality — Terry McAuliffe tops the ticket, setting up a stark contrast on a social issue. James Parrish, executive director for Equality Virginia, said he isn't sure anyone would run a television commercial attacking Cuccinelli's antigay stances, but mailings and campaign speeches "in targeted communities and targeted districts, I think we’ll start seeing that this year." The problem with television attack ads is they can be far-reaching, helping raise the issue even in more conservative counties, he said. "With the poll numbers changing, I think it’s inevitable that it would be possible," Parrish said. "I’m not sure if Virginia is quite ready."
All of the LGBT political strategists who spoke with The Advocate said successfully attacking a candidate for being antigay very much depends on where they're running. No candidate can risk being out of step with their constituents. But it may be possible to agree on the issues while going too far rhetorically.
"If someone was being stridently antigay in a jurisdiction that was not that way, or even marginally more supportive of LGBT rights, it would probably be the stridentness that would be an issue as much as the content of the stridentness," said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Victory Fund, which helps elect LGBT candidates. "So there’s a tone and a content question when looking at these things politically. How is the person antigay? How are they talking about it? And what is the content of this speech?"
The list of candidates throughout American history who have been attacked for being too "extreme" on any range of issues is lengthy. That could become grounds for the first foray into attacks on antigay candidates.
If the U.S. Senate really does take up a vote on ENDA, which would make it illegal to discriminate in the workplace against gay and lesbian employees, it could create an issue for the bill's opponents if they represent states where voters support employment protections. Or there's the case of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed a bipartisan marriage equality bill last year and is now deciding whether to also veto a bill banning conversion therapy for minors.
There is just one candidate, who activists can remember being targeted for "extreme" antigay policies — Mitt Romney. During the last presidential election, the "Mitt Gets Worse" campaign was obviously targeted to those LGBT voters familiar with the play on words inspired by the It Gets Better Project. The Mitt Gets Worse campaign's website delivered testimonials from the likes of Rep. Barney Frank and other activists, often in Massachusetts where they contended with him as governor. The site "aims to educate voters about Mitt Romney’s extreme anti-LGBT agenda," it promised in July of 2012. It did not include any paid television commercials. Mitt Gets Worse was created by two PACs: American Bridge 21st Century and Courage Campaign.
But it's unclear whose job it would be to make that attack at the state level, even if a race seemed tempting to give it a try.
Freedom to Marry has been successful in winning marriage equality fights at the state level, but it focuses on the issue and doesn't endorse or oppose candidates. The many counterparts nationwide to Equality Virginia will use mailing lists to educate voters in their respective states on where candidates stand on issues, but they tend to focus on lobbying in state capitols and usually avoid attacking candidates with whom they might one day have to negotiate.
Super PACS and the likes of the Human Rights Campaign have the most flexibility. Until now, when one of those groups wanted to target a candidate, it has spent money on the leading issues like jobs and the economy. Even in the case of Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate, a collection of progressive interests combined their cash for advertising campaigns in Wisconsin that weren't focused on LGBT equality. But that's what was expected to get voters to the polls in 2012.
"You don't go into these things sort of blindly, you do the research ahead of time," said HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz, talking broadly about the way money gets spent.
Perhaps a candidate will need to motivate Democratic voters to get to the polls, or maybe what's needed is driving up turnout among young voters. Then the case for an ad campaign on LGBT equality looks better.
Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, said LGBT groups on the national and state level are doing a good job of "flexing their muscle electorally" by going after opponents and supporting friends, even if the messages used aren't LGBT-focused. The question now is "whether we're at a point both in popularity of our cause overall, and in salience of our cause," that it makes strategic sense to highlight LGBT issues to voters.
"The marketplace is going to decide when these issues are used," said Solomon. "There is a huge amount of money that is put into races and there's a lot of research that's being's done to figure out what the most effective issues are. And when independent expenditure campaigns and the candidate campaigns themselves start highlighting equality for LGBT folks, that's when you know it's an effective message, because that will be tested."
DANIEL REYNOLDS contributed reporting to this piece.