View to Washington: Inclusive Republicans Eye Congress

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com July 25 2009 12:00 AM ET

It's been a little slow in coming, but it looks like Republicans are finally getting the message that being outright homophobic is not the wave of the future.

This week in New York, the Republican county chairs of the 23rd congressional district tossed aside a handful of other candidates and tapped state assemblywoman Dierdre Scozzafava to run for the seat being vacated by Rep. John McHugh, whom President Obama has nominated as Secretary of the Army.

Scozzafava is one of four GOP assemblymembers who voted to pass New York's first marriage equality bill back in 2007 -- a vote that some deemed a potential death knell in her conservative upstate district. But conventional wisdom imploded and Scozzafava ran for reelection uncontested -- meaning no one thought she was vulnerable enough to lose.

Additionally, her pro-marriage equality Republican colleagues were also reelected (albeit, one as a Democrat).

But the GOP seemed to ignore that reality when they attempted to regain Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand's congressional seat after she was appointed to Hillary Clinton's vacant Senate seat.

Gillibrand, who has proven to be quite wily, stole the seat from Republicans in 2006 when she upended four-term incumbent Rep. John Sweeney. To regain that seat this year, the GOP settled on Assemblyman James Tedisco -- an anti-abortion, anti-marriage equality pol who wondered recently during a floor debate if New York's marriage bill would be a slippery slope to polygamy.

While his challenger, Democrat Scott Murphy, supports civil unions and gun rights -- much like Gillibrand before she jumped chambers -- Tedisco's brand of conservatism made Murphy look like a prince. Apparently, even the historically Republican 20th district just couldn't squeeze out enough votes to elect him. And although Tedisco lost by a razor-thin margin, the GOP's Monday morning quarterbacks concluded that moderate state senator Betty Little "would have crushed Murphy," according to one Republican insider.

That revelation seems to be taking hold in enclaves outside of New York as well.

In Illinois, Republican Party leaders just cleared the deck for Congressman Mark Kirk to run for Barack Obama's former seat after it was briefly visited by Roland Burris. Though Kirk is not on the record for marriage equality, he cosponsored the House's hate-crimes bill, voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, and voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in both 2004 and 2006.

Kirk may be assailed by some die-hard social conservatives as a traitor and a RINO (Republican in Name Only), but clearly the GOP leadership senses that he is their best hope to win back a seat from Democrats.

Indeed, a leading Republican operative recently included Kirk in a list of three moderate Republicans who give him hope for future GOP Senate pickups.

"My fellow conservatives may not like this one," wrote Fred Malek in defense of his plug for moderates, "but hear me out: Unless our party can embrace a big-tent policy that welcomes moderates like my friend Colin Powell, we will not win elections. In liberal-dominated Illinois, Delaware, and increasingly purple Florida, we need to be open to supporting officials who can win and will support our issues most of the time, instead of electing more Democrats who will oppose us nearly all of the time."

Within that list, Malek also named Delaware's Rep. Mike Castle, who gained notoriety this week when he tried to stand down a so-called birther who hijacked his town hall meeting -- claiming Barack Obama was born in Kenya and crying, "I want my country back!" Castle upset the wing nuts by having the nerve to proclaim that President Obama is a U.S. citizen, but I digress.

Like Kirk, Castle is a social moderate who also voted yes on hate crimes and ENDA, and no on the FMA twice.

I could name other moderate Republicans who are eyeing congressional seats -- in Connecticut or New Hampshire, for instance -- but the point is that the GOP is starting to see a resurgence of the moderate in traditionally blue and even purple states. And in most cases, moderate has started to mean LGBT-inclusive.

As one Republican pointed out to me, the Democrats have infiltrated the South by running antigay, pro-gun moderates for the last several election cycles. Republicans are now coming around to the notion that if you run Scozzafava in the northeast, you win -- or at least you have a chance.

And her race, in particular, has already turned the tables on traditional pro-LGBT party dynamics. Shortly after Scozzafava got the nod, Democratic state senator Darrel Aubertine announced that he had decided not to run for the seat. Presumably Aubertine, an anti-marriage equality Democrat, concluded that challenging a pro-marriage equality Republican might not be a smart career move.