DES MOINES, Iowa — For some gay Iowa Republicans, the 2012 presidential election is about more than just LGBT issues.
Economic issues and a belief in limited government are trumping concerns that the GOP presidential contenders are hostile to LGBT rights.
The Washington Blade interviewed five young gay Des Moines residents who will be among the estimated 120,000 Iowa Republican caucus-goers about why they support the GOP this year.
C.J. Petersen, 21, a customer service representative for Nationwide Insurance, is backing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney because of the candidate’s business background.
Petersen said he became interested in Romney as a high school senior in 2007 when he saw him speak during his last presidential run.
“I think, this year, he’s been a 100 percent better candidate,” Petersen said. “If you compare the YouTube videos from ’08 to now, he seems a lot less robotic and choppy and nervous. I think he seems a lot more relaxed, and almost presidential, ready to be a leader.”
Two other gay Iowa residents interviewed by the Blade said they’re backing Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) because of the candidate’s libertarian views.
Dereck Plagmann, 21, said he’s in the Paul camp because of the candidate’s adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
“I think it’s something that we’ve definitely drifted away from,” Plagmann said. “We need to get back to it basically. Other presidents, everybody’s trying to make changes to it. They’ve lost focus on what really made this country, and what made us who we are.”
Zach Coffin, 22, a collector for Wells Fargo bank, also plans to back Paul.
“I think that’s basically what this country needs right now is someone that will defend the core values and the core principles of the Constitution of the United States,” Coffin said. “That’s one thing that Ron Paul is focusing on well.”
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Two other gay caucus participants interviewed by the Blade had yet to make a decision on a candidate, but intend to support a Republican.
Bryan Pulda, 21, a processor for Wells Fargo Bank, said he still needs to research each of the GOP candidates.
“I come from a farming family, so it’s conservative or Catholic,” Pulda said. “Our personal views are more reflected in the Republican candidates.”
Although he hasn’t made a final choice, Pulda said he’s leaning toward backing Paul because he believes the candidate’s politics “are consistent” and he “hasn’t been in the news with anything controversial.”
Ryan Schrader, 22, who works at a local Casey’s gas station, was also undecided but said he’s leaning toward Paul.
“I come from a very conservative background myself,” Schrader said. “My family is very conservative Baptists. So his views are more towards letting the people, which would be all of us, make the decisions to shape our country.”
The candidates chosen by the five caucus-goers — Romney and Paul — have adopted some anti-gay positions, though they have not been as extreme in their views as other Republican contenders.
Paul supported the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and twice voted against a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Romney backs such an amendment, but expressed doubts that there is enough momentum or interest to pass it. He’s also said he would leave open service in the military as it is.
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Still, neither candidate has the track record or commitment that President Obama has demonstrated in advancing LGBT rights. But the gay Iowa caucus-goers say they’re backing a Republican candidate to address more mainstream issues affecting the country.
Coffin said social issues can motivate people because they’re easy to understand, but if voters take the time to learn about economic issues, they “usually wind up changing their mind and thinking about the big picture what’s really going on here.”
“I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always lived in Iowa, and Iowa is one of the states where you can be married,” Coffin said. “With the amount of rights that gay people have right now, I feel totally comfortable with what we have.”
While Iowa has achieved marriage equality, if a Republican administration succeeds in passing a Federal Marriage Amendment as many of the candidates have promised, the measure would abrogate the 2009 court ruling allowing gay couples to marry in the state.
Pulda similarly said issues like same-sex marriage are on the back burner in comparison to improving economic conditions in the country.
“I would find it almost selfish for me to go out and say, ‘I vote for this person simply because they want same-sex marriage,’” Pulda said. “There are so many more problems in this country affecting more people than just me.”
But there’s a limit to how much these caucus-goers are willing to look the other way. Candidates like former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Rep. Michele Bachmann, who make anti-gay rhetoric a foundation of their campaigns, are turn-offs as potential candidates.
Petersen said he wouldn’t support a candidate who would make social issues a “central tenet of their campaign.
“I’m a Republican, but I’m not stupid,” Petersen said. “If they want to use those issues as a wedge to get voters to support them, I’m not really attracted to that.”
A recent anti-gay ad by Rick Perry that has been widely circulated on the Internet was a bridge too far for these caucus-goers. In the ad, Perry accuses Obama of engaging in a war on religion and says, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
Pulda said the ad made him think twice about Perry, but still isn’t ruling him out as a potential candidate to back during the caucuses.
“I liked Rick Perry, but the latest ad he put out — I think he used the wrong language,” Pulda said. “That wasn’t the ad to go out.”
Petersen took a dig at Obama, saying he’s been paying lip service to the LGBT community and that one of his major accomplishments — repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — “just kind of came to him.”
“It was basically Senators [Susan Collins] and Joe Lieberman who said they were getting this done at the end of the year,” Petersen said. “What ended up happening is a great victory for us in the sense that LGBT Americans can now serve their country in uniform. That’s a great thing, but I don’t really credit that to President Obama.”
The administration was seen by some as playing a passive role in the legislative effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the Pentagon issued its report on implementing repeal. But after the Pentagon report came out, observers said the White House was active in engaging with senators to push through the legislation.
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said support for the Republican Party among young voters will grow if the GOP steers clear of social issues.
“Younger conservative voters under 30 continue to increasingly poll disinterest over social issues and do not support perceived or real demonization of LGBT Americans,” Cooper said. “If social issues, however, remain a myopic priority for certain candidates, they will find as former [Republican National Committee] Chairman Haley Barbour stated in 2011, ‘Purity is the enemy of victory.’”
Peter Levine, director of Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, said involvement of young gays in the Iowa caucuses is reflective of the political energy among youth throughout the country.
“I think it’s sort of characteristic of this generation,” Levine said. “Even though the turnout in the end may not be that high, for various reasons, I think there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
It’s not the first time that Petersen and Plagmann have participated in the Iowa caucuses. Petersen backed Romney in 2008, while Plagmann participated in the Democratic caucus and backed Obama’s candidacy.
Plagmann said he might vote for Obama during the general election if the Republican nominee isn’t to his liking, although he’s changing his party affiliation during the Iowa caucuses because he’s disappointed in the administration.
“Back then it was my first election,” Plagmann said. “I was 18. I didn’t really look a whole lot into it. I guess I could relate to him more. But surely now, I don’t think he’s been as effective as what America had hoped.”
Whatever the election results, at least one of the caucus-goers says he’ll keep gay rights in mind as he continues advocating for a Republican agenda.
“I personally would like to see same-sex marriage legalized in all the states, but I don’t think we have to leave the Republican Party in order to stand for most of our principles,” Petersen said. “I’m not going to base my entire vote on one part of my life. I have a financial future as well as a romantic future.”