Before aligning himself with the loathed and unqualified Donald Trump, Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence was mostly known as the Indiana governor who signed the so-called Turn Away the Gays bill. After Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allowed business owners to refuse service to LGBT people -- or anyone else who allegedly offends a citizen's sincerely held religious belief -- reaction was swift and severe. Conventions and companies boycotted and the state took a reported $60 million financial hit; only then did Pence change the law's language so LGBT people couldn't be directly targeted.
So naturally, this would come up in Tuesday's vice-presidential debate between Pence and Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's running mate and current senator from Virginia? Nope. Not a peep, nor any specific LGBT issue like employment protections, violence against trans people, or institutionalized homophobia in other nations. The absence is not only insulting to LGBT people, it's a huge missed opportunity for the Clinton campaign, which has struggled to excite and entice young voters.
The New York Times reports that its latest polling found a full third of millennial voters are planning to vote for a third-party candidate. The effect of that could spell disaster for Clinton, so much so that first lady Michelle Obama is visiting college campuses with this message: "If you vote for someone other than Hillary, or if you don't vote at all, then you are helping to elect Hillary's opponent."
Though CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano certainly deserves criticism for not directly asking Pence about his hateful bill, she nearly handed Kaine the opportunity to confront the governor's homophobia.
"You have both been open about the role that faith has played in your lives," she said near the end of the debate. "Can you discuss, in detail, a time when you struggled to balance your faith and a public policy decision?"
Kaine went into a lecture about how he'd never inflict his Catholic faith on Americans he served, making a strong moral case for separation of church and state. While Kaine discussed the issue of a woman's right to choose and thankfully criticized Donald Trump for saying women should be punished if they terminated their pregnancies, the senator didn't reserve a word about his own support for marriage equality or LGBT rights, and how he reconciles that with his Catholic faith. It's a bit shocking since Kaine just gave that very speech last month at the annual Human Rights Campaign gala.
Millennials feel strongly about LGBT rights, with 71 percent of people born after 1980 supporting marriage equality, according to the Pew Research Center this year; the same poll found that less than half (46 percent) of Baby Boomers approved of same-sex marriage. A whopping 65 percent of millennials said they support federal employment and housing protections for LGBT people in a December 2014 poll. This is an issue young voters care about. Did Clinton's gay campaign manager, Robby Mook, forget to tell Kaine that?
While Kaine is a center-left Democrat who's much loved in his party and helped shore up Virginia for Clinton, he's far from the political revolutionary many Bernie Sanders supporters hoped Clinton would pick as her running mate. Admitedly, many believe that choosing Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren would've been too risky for future control of the Senate, and neither senator would have improved Clinton's chances of winning the Electoral College, as Sanders and Warren both come from reliably blue states. So while Clinton has adopted positions of Sanders's that strike a chord with millennials -- free college tuition, banking reform -- she and her running mate have not done a stellar job highlighting their own difference from the right-wing positions of Trump-Pence, which would set the nation back decades.
Clinton and Kaine don't talk nearly enough about the environment and their plans to reverse or stop climate change -- something most young people want action on -- and that's something Kaine should have hammered his opponent on during Tuesday's debate. But Kaine also missed a huge opportunity that night by not saying he and Clinton stand for LGBT rights, even at the expense of someone's "deeply held religious beliefs."
Kaine could have reminded young voters that Pence and Trump plan to put justices on the Supreme Court who will reverse marriage equality. Instead -- and partially thanks to Kaine -- we got a forgettable discussion between two politicians who polls say millennials will wrongly see as indistinguishable.
NEAL BROVERMAN is executive editor for The Advocate. Contact him @nbroverman.