Is going gay good for your re-election prospects?
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are among the incumbents seeking re-election hoping that their support of LGBT rights will translate to campaign donations and victory in November.
Both lawmakers championed repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as one of their signature issues, and both have promising prospects for their re-election chances even though they’re competing in challenging races.
In the House, Murphy has been outspoken on the issue of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and sponsored repeal legislation. He’s made numerous media appearances to denounce the law and was featured last year on the cover of The Advocate.
Upon taking up repeal legislation last year, the Iraq war veteran took a bill with about 150 co-sponsors and brought a measure to the floor of the House that earned 234 votes.
Similarly, Gillibrand has been a strong proponent of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” since her appointment last year to the U.S. Senate.
She last year floated the idea of introducing an amendment that would have instituted an 18-month moratorium on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Additionally, Gillibrand is credited with working with Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin to initiate hearings on the issue.
Matt Canter, a Gillibrand spokesperson, said the senator’s advocacy work on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is based on a strong personal conviction.
“My boss has helped champion the issue because she felt that now is the time to right this wrong,” he said. “She felt we needed leadership in the Senate to breathe life into this issue, to begin the debate on this issue.”
Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, called Murphy and Gillibrand “real champions of repeal” and emphasized the importance of Murphy’s status as an Iraq war veteran on the issue.
“Our campaign has been about putting veterans front and center, and when you have someone like the congressman — with a distinguished history of military service — it is profoundly impactful on both his colleagues and public opinion,” Cole said.
As LGBT civil rights advocates have expressed gratitude for Murphy and Gillibrand for tackling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the lawmakers are facing a more favorable climate as they seek re-election this fall than many other incumbents.
Murphy is running in Pennsylvania’s 8th congressional district, which, prior to his election in 2006, had been represented by a Republican since 1993. Murphy is facing in the general election Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, the former U.S. House member whom Murphy unseated by less than 1 percentage point.
Still, many political observers are predicting that the Democratic congressman is likely to achieve victory this fall.
The Cook Report identifies the race as “lean Democratic” and the Rothenberg Political Report calls it “Democrat favored.” Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball identifies the race as a “toss-up.”
Meanwhile, Gillibrand is looking at a relatively smooth race this fall even though she was once considered vulnerable because she had been appointed to her seat last year by New York Gov. David Paterson and has never won statewide election.
One by one, possible serious challengers have decided they wouldn’t throw their hats in the ring — despite earlier speculation that they would do so.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who had earlier sought to challenge Gillibrand for the Democratic nomination, announced late last year that she wouldn’t pursue a run. Earlier this year, Harold Ford Jr., a Democratic former U.S. House member who represented Tennessee, said he was considering running, but later decided against it.
On the Republican side, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New York Gov. George Pataki were once seen as possible Gillibrand challengers, but both announced they wouldn’t pursue the seat.
Rev. Al Sharpton, a black civil rights activist and former Democratic candidate for president, reportedly told the New York Times earlier this year that Gillibrand has seen a remarkable amount of good fortune in her re-election bid.
“I think Gillibrand either has mystical powers or the best luck I have ever seen in politics,” he was quoted as saying in an April article.
But how much impact advocating for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal is having on these incumbent lawmakers remains in question.
Canter expressed skepticism about a correlation between Gillibrand’s position on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and her lack of serious competition this fall.
“I don’t know why Rudy Giuliani decided not to run for Senate,” Canter said. “I don’t know if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is the reason.”
Trevor Thomas, a spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the impact of supporting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal has so far been minimal on incumbents.
“SLDN looked at those [lawmakers] who voted for the Murphy amendment and are also facing tough re-election fights,” Thomas said. “We understand that includes about 25 members, and only two of them have been hit by their opponents for voting for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal.”
Thomas said that attacking an incumbent House member for their “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” stance isn’t “the strongest winning point by Republican opponents in this election season.”
But Dan Pinello, a gay government professor at the City University of New York, said advocating for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal helped put both Murphy and Gillibrand into more favorable positions this fall.
“Taking a highly public leadership role in attacking [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] is likely to reap substantial political reward in the form of campaign contributions from the national LGBT community,” Pinello said.
Pinello noted that Murphy’s advocacy on repeal made him particularly attractive to LGBT donors seeking to advance their cause.
“Murphy has appeared on ‘The Rachel Maddow Show’ and other liberal media outlets as this hunky straight knight in shining armor coming to the rescue of lesbian and gay damsels in distress,” Pinello said. “How in the world can they not reward him with anything less than tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions?”
Pinello likewise called Gillibrand a “wily fundraiser” and said he expects that she would use her advocacy against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to “her campaign’s best financial advantage.”
Still, Pinello noted a distinction between taking on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that polls show an overwhelming number of Americans oppose, as opposed to taking on more challenging LGBT issues, such as repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Pinello said he doesn’t believe any member of Congress is taking on DOMA as forcefully as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” even though the federal law prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriage affects more LGBT Americans.
“The principal reason for such [a] legislative leadership vacuum is that attacking DOMA would appear to most constituents to be endorsing same-sex marriage, which only about a third of Americans support outright,” he said. “So only Democratic incumbents in extremely safe districts or states would risk acting so boldly. And there are relatively few of those in this election cycle.”