Scroll To Top

Ohio Republicans
Still Targeting Gays in Critical State Legislative Races

Ohio Republicans
Still Targeting Gays in Critical State Legislative Races


Ohio has passed both a law and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but that hasn't stopped the GOP from trying to stir up antigay sentiment in order to keep its four-seat advantage in the state house of representatives.

On the face of things, antigay messages would seem to hold limited strategic value during the current election cycle in Ohio. After all, the state legislature passed a same-sex marriage ban in 2004, followed that same year by a voter-approved constitutional ban, and legislation to bar gays and lesbians from adopting children failed to gain any significant traction in 2006.

But the prospect of redundancy hasn't stopped the Ohio Republican Party from a last-minute attempt to use same-sex marriage and, especially, gay adoption to maintain control of the state house of representatives, where Democrats could potentially pick up the four seats necessary to win a majority in the chamber for the first time since 1994.

"It's a Hail Mary pass," says Lynne Bowman, executive director of Equality Ohio, a nonpartisan, statewide LGBT rights organization built in the aftermath of the constitutional marriage ban. "It worked in 2004, so they're going to try to pull it out again."

This time the plays in question are antigay campaign literature and a radio ad that surfaced in two close contests in early October, marking the first high-profile appearance of gay issues in an election dominated by economic concerns. Both are races that Democrats consider winnable, and thus key in their strategy to take control of the 99-seat house, where Republicans currently hold a 53-46 advantage.

"Twenty-one seats are targeted, but when you get down to it, I'd say 18," says Scarlett Bouder, communications director of the Ohio House Democratic Caucus. "If our attention is there, it's something we think we can win."

One of those top-tier contests is the 85th District in Chillicothe, a somewhat conservative rural area about 45 miles south of Columbus, the state capital. Democrat Ray Pryor, a retired civil servant and Navy veteran, hopes to oust three-term Republican incumbent John Schlichter in a rematch of a race he narrowly lost by about 3 percentage points in 2006.

In the past month, six mailers and one radio ad have been released in the district that mainly attack Pryor's position on gay adoption, claiming that he supports a policy that harms children. The mailers from Schlichter, marked "paid for by the Ohio Republican Party," cite Pryor's 2006 campaign website, which is no longer accessible. But sources say he was responding to a debate in the state legislature over gay adoption and took a position that wasn't definitively pro- or anti-gay adoption.??"He expressed that he believes in traditional Christian values, but believes that children should have safe, loving, permanent homes," Bouder said.

While it wasn't necessarily a gay affirmation, the GOP created mailers with headlines such as "Liberal Ray Pryor Supports Gay Adoption." The stark-looking campaign literature features two bridegroom cake figurines over a background of a tearful young girl. "Ray Pryor doesn't want to raise Ohio's children in the best environment," it charges, urging people to "Vote no on gay adoption, vote no on Ray Pryor."

When a bill to bar gays and lesbians from adopting or fostering children was introduced in the house in 2006, Republican speaker of the house Jon Husted surprised many by deriding the proposal. He revealed that he himself had been adopted, and prevented a vote on the bill.

Called for comment, Scott McClelland, spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said he would first need to check the mailers in question. He has not responded to follow-up inquiries.

Pryor did not return a call seeking comment, but sources familiar with the candidate describe the avowed Christian as a fair-minded ally -- albeit perhaps not the life of the pride parade -- with strong potential to win as a Democrat in a conservative area.

"He did the right thing, and he got hit for it," said Bouder.

In contrast, a subtler mailer blanketed the suburbs of Columbus, where in the 22nd District, Democrat John Carney is battling Republican Michael Keenan for the seat being vacated by term-limited Republican incumbent Jim Hughes.

Headlined "Putting Us on the Path to Stronger Values," the mailer asserts the values of Keenan, a Republican city councilman and insurance agency president.

"Michael Keenan will strengthen families by keeping marriage between a man and a woman," says the mailer, without directly referencing Carney, a health care attorney endorsed by the Equality Ohio Campaign Fund and the Stonewall Democrats of Central Ohio. His support for everything in regard to LGBT equality, up to and including marriage, makes him a target for coded messages about traditional family values, according to observers.

"It's a softer message," says Equality Ohio's Bowman, adding that the district contains a high number of female same-sex couples raising children. "It says, 'I'm right there with you. I don't support these gays. I'm one of you.'"

The attacks against Pryor in particular have motivated LGBT Democrats, who acknowledge the importance of winning the rural district where his race is taking place for their party. Although LGBT efforts are mostly focused on major metropolitan areas such as Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, reaction to the Chillicothe contest reverberates statewide. Outraged activists don't want to lose a race that would disrupt the chances of a Democratic house takeover due to below-the-belt tactics.

"The Ray Pryor pieces have really galvanized the community to actually come out and knock on doors, not just give their money," says James Winnett, LGBT Caucus director for the Ohio Democratic Party.

In fact, one weekend shortly after the mailers appeared, LGBT Democrats knocked on 8,000 doors across the state in their largest canvass to date in Ohio. Some 1,000 LGBT people regularly volunteer on weekends, part of a 5,000-member force assembled in the excitement of 2008. The caucus has also reached its goal of filling 3,000 Get Out the Vote volunteer shifts across the state.

"The Ohio Democratic Party created the caucus in 2006, and there was very little involvement," says Winnett.

Of course, economic conditions and the charismatic Obama candidacy also play a tremendous role in generating interest. "People wouldn't necessarily think there would be a trickle-down effect in Ohio, but there is," says the Democratic Party's Bouder. "The economy is trickling down to areas that may have been previously unaffected, and there is a candidate with a populist message that is speaking to the needs of voters."?

While helping to spur grassroots power, the antigay mailings also illustrate the formal inroads gays and lesbians have made into the Ohio Democratic Party since the 2004 presidential election. Days after the mailers against Pryor emerged, Democratic governor Ted Strickland, who won office in 2006, appeared at a press conference and rally on October 13 to denounce the literature and support his candidate.

"They're lies, plain and simple," said Governor Strickland, according to the Chillicothe Gazette. "I know we're in 'the silly season,' but these types of tactics are reprehensible."

"The gay community is definitely getting more -- and much more visible -- support from the Democratic Party in Ohio this time around compared to 2004," said Lynne Bowman.

Considering the changed landscape, and the potential to backfire, some wonder what prompted the Ohio Republican Party to green-light the mailers in the first place. Given that the GOP is not talking, opponents can only speculate.

Some Democrats label it an act of desperation. "When you've got nothing, you run on accusations and innuendo," says Doug Kelly, executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party. "I don't think voters are fooled by this."

Others suspect the literature and radio ad might be a pragmatic exercise, enabled by the $8.4 million dollars in campaign contributions the GOP received, compared to $4.7 million for the Democrats, as reported to the Ohio secretary of state.

"When you have money like that, you can throw everything at the wall and see what sticks," says Bouder of the House Democratic Caucus.

It remains to be seen whether disgust with the ads will translate into the Republicans' undoing on November 4 and a Democratic majority in the house. Though Republicans would still hold the senate, advocates would hope to use Democratic control of the lower chamber and the executive branch to pressure the senate to move on legislative priorities like an employment nondiscrimination bill. Governor Strickland, an LGBT ally, is not up for reelection until 2010.?"We'll move toward the right direction in the future," says James Winnett. "You have to choose your battles wisely, and this is the one we chose."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Julie Bolcer