From the November Print Issue
On the day that Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Congress's only openly lesbian member, announced her much-anticipated run for the Senate seat to be vacated by retiring Wisconsin senator Herb Kohl, one opponent sought to jump on the news with a snippy statement about his would-be adversary in next year's election. "She's voted for virtually the entire Obama agenda, except for when it wasn't liberal enough," former Wisconsin congressman Mark Neumann said in September. "I'm a conservative, she's a liberal -- it's that simple."
Par for the political course, Neumann criticized Baldwin's record, even if the language was tiresome and threadbare (think catchwords like "job-killing" and "ObamaCare.") What Neumann did not do -- even though he's said in the past that he would never hire a gay person and would eradicate homosexuality if he ever got to play God -- is overtly go after Baldwin for her sexual orientation. That's because he likely doesn't have to. Attacking a candidate with base homophobia as a weapon is tricky these days ("If you want to go down that road, you better be careful, because it can backfire," says Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy), but gay political observers have seen surrogates or third-party groups mount backdoor campaigns. In 2009, as Annise Parker ran for mayor of Houston, she was attacked in antigay campaign literature that was bankrolled in part by members of her opponent's finance committee. After the Houston Chronicle uncovered the links, the candidate, Gene Locke, publicly denounced the actions of his supporters, and Parker ultimately won the election handily.
Subtext in campaign ads can also be a backhanded way to undermine an LGBT candidate, says Denis Dison of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. "For instance, a candidate may rely unusually heavily on family themes to contrast with an openly LGBT opponent," he says.
Baldwin doesn't appear fazed by any antigay attempts to thwart her senatorial ambitions--nor is she going to soft-pedal her identity and pro-LGBT record. "I have always been open about my sexual orientation, and voters appreciate integrity and honesty in elected and public officials," she told The Advocate as this issue went to press. "If I get to the point where I am in a debate with someone who supports discrimination and is against equality, I will stand up."