The Tea Party is making headlines for energizing the Republican Party base and ousting incumbent GOP lawmakers from Congress, but some observers say the movement is having limited impact on LGBT issues.
The movement is focused on economic issues and limited government rather than anti-gay rhetoric in its bid for growth and acceptance.
Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said the Tea Party movement has “taken a lot of the wind out of the LGBT demagoguery sails.”
“Their relentless focus on economic issues has really taken a lot of the attention away from some of the attacks on LGBT people that we usually see from elements of the conservative movement,” he said.
Cole acknowledged the Tea Party may have anti-gay extremists in its ranks, recalling how tea partiers reportedly called Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) anti-gay epithets during a March rally at the U.S. Capitol, but maintained members of the movement have been reticent to address social issues.
“You don’t see as much rhetoric around choice or LGBT issues or some of the other things as you do around taxes and the deficit and health care and things like that,” he said.
Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, a gay conservative group, also maintained the focus of the Tea Party is on economic issues and not blocking the advancement of LGBT issues in Congress.
“The focus of the Tea Party is on fiscal issues and the growth of government, and their influence on Congress is to get Congress focused on those issues,” LaSalvia said. “And so, I think, if it’s having any influence on Congress, it’s telling Capitol Hill to wake up and quit spending all the money.”
But the perception that the Tea Party isn’t relevant to LGBT issues isn’t universal.
Michael Mitchell, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, characterized the Tea Party as the reincarnation of previous anti-gay movements.
“There is, indeed, a very conservative movement out there that is finding a voice and turning some races, but I believe it’s the same anti-equality, anti-gay elements that have been roadblocks and are going to be roadblocks for us,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he fears what will happen to LGBT issues if leaders from the Tea Party movement are elected to public office.
“I think if these Tea Party folks are in power – Sarah Palin, for example, if she were to somehow get back into power – believe me, our issues are not going to be anywhere near their agenda at all,” he said.
The fallout of recent Republican primaries suggests that LGBT issues may in fact be playing a role in how in the Tea Party is shaping national elections.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was trailing in her bid to retain the Republican nomination following a primary last week that as of Blade deadline was too close to call.
Murkowski’s Tea Party opponent in the primary, Joe Miller, led the senator by 1,688 votes on Tuesday. The Alaska Division of Elections was set to count this week 15,272 absentee, questioned and early ballots as part of at least 25,500 uncounted ballots, according to the Associated Press.
Known in some circles as a moderate Republican, Murkowski was among four GOP senators to vote for cloture on attaching hate crimes protection legislation to the Fiscal Year 2010 Defense Authorization Act.
Miller, on the other hand, has on his campaign website a letter explaining his opposition to hate crimes laws because he says they violate First Amendment rights. The letter criticizes Murkowski for her vote for the measure.
“At the time of Senator Murkowski’s vote to expand hate crimes into the realm of sexual orientation, the latest FBI statistics at her disposal relating to crimes of bias motivated by sexual orientation reported exactly ONE case in all of Alaska,” writes Miller.
In Arizona, some observers believe the Tea Party also had an impact on moving Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to become the most vocal opponent in the U.S. Senate of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as he faced a primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth.
McCain has threatened to filibuster the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill based on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language and has spoken out against repeal in committee hearings. Before lawmakers broke for August recess, McCain objected to bringing the defense bill to the floor because of the repeal language.
The senator’s opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal may have paid off in his primary last week. He trounced Hayworth in the Republican primary by securing 56 percent of the vote.
There is much debate about the Tea Party’s role in the aftermath of those campaigns.
LaSalvia maintained that Murkowski’s situation isn’t the result of her hate crimes vote because of her positions on government spending.
“She wasn’t voted out because she voted for hate crimes; she was voted out because she’s a porker,” LaSalvia said. “That’s a stretch to look at any race and draw a gay connection to really any race like that. The election cycle is shaping up to be an election about jobs, the economy and spending.”
Cole also said he didn’t think hate crimes legislation played a significant role in the Alaska primary.
“If you just look at the reporting afterwards analyzing the race, it was all about these sort of economic issues and these homegrown things,” he said. “Her vote on hate crimes I just never heard once brought up.”
As for McCain, Cole cautioned against making too much of his opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“John McCain had to move to the right on his primary challenge, but I think his primary shift was on immigration,” Cole said. “Certainly, he was never a fan of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, and he increased his rhetoric faced from the threat with his right, but I think that those sorts of instances are exceptions rather than the rule for the way that these campaigns have been fought.”
Another example suggests that the Tea Party movement is throwing out incumbent Republicans regardless of their views on LGBT issues.
Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who was unable to secure the Republican nomination in May after finishing third in the second round of balloting at the Utah Republican Convention, has a strong anti-gay record this Congress.
In March, the Senate defeated the senator’s attempt to amend health care reform legislation to include a provision calling for a vote on same-sex marriage in D.C. Additionally, late last year, Bennett was the sole committee vote against reporting out the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act to the Senate floor.
LaSalvia said Bennett’s loss of the Republican nomination even with this record underscores the Tea Party is focused on economic issues rather than social issues.
“Bob Bennett got voted out because he’s been part of the problem,” he said. “He’s been in Congress a long time and spent a lot of money and hasn’t stood up to change things.”
LaSalvia noted that Bennett’s vote for the bank bailout as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program was among the actions that frustrated Republican voters.