April 15, 2010 at 4:55 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Democrats in danger and playing defense

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is one of several pro-LGBT lawmakers facing a tough battle for re-election this fall. (Photo courtesy of Reid's office)

Several veteran senators viewed as supportive of LGBT rights are facing tough re-election campaigns, prompting some activists and lobbyists to gear up for a defensive battle this fall.

Mike Mings, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s political action committee, said his organization is “certainly aware” that Democrats face a more difficult environment than in the previous two congressional elections.

“I think the Democrats were able to play offense in the last two cycles in a way that has created a different field today,” he said. “So, they’re [now] really looking at defense.”

Recently published polls brings into stark relief the troubling news for several incumbent U.S. senators. Rasmussen unveiled numbers last week showing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) trailing potential Republican opponents by double digits.

According to the polls, Reid would lose in a match with former Nevada Republican Party Chair Sue Lowden, 54-39; in a contest between Reid and former State Assembly member Sharron Angle, he trails 51-40; and in a contest against attorney Danny Tarkanian, Reid comes up short again, 49-42.

Viewed as an LGBT ally on Capitol Hill, Reid was involved last year in the decision to attach the hate crimes bill to the defense authorization bill and has often spoken in favor of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. military.

Also last year, Reid was the highest-ranking elected public official to endorse the National Equality March in D.C. A Mormon, Reid also reportedly criticized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for backing Proposition 8, which ended same-sex marriage in California.

Another longtime senator who could face an uphill re-election fight is Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.). A Wisconsin Public Radio/St. Norbert College poll published last week found him behind Tommy Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services who’s reportedly considering entering the Senate race.

In a hypothetical matchup, Feingold would lose to Thompson 45-33, according to the poll.

In 1996, Feingold was one of 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. Now a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and legislation to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Feingold introduced a resolution earlier this year to condemn legislation pending in Uganda that would institute the death penalty as punishment for those convicted of homosexual acts.

Also facing a tough re-election bid is Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). A poll published late last month by the Public Policy Institute of California found her in a dead heat with three potential Republican opponents.

According to the poll, Boxer would be essentially tied with former congressman Tom Campbell, with him leading 44-43. She would also be in a dead heat with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, with Boxer leading 44-43. Late last month, The Hill newspaper’s election forecasters moved the race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up.”

Boxer was also among the 14 senators to vote against DOMA in 1996. A co-sponsor of ENDA and of legislation to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Boxer last month introduced a bill that would allow same-sex domestic partners to have the same access to COBRA benefits as married couples in some circumstances.

Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer’s campaign manager, said the senator has “always expected a tough race” and has been “working for months to build a broad coalition of Californians from every background and walk of life.”

“With the active involvement of our supporters in the LGBT community and so many others, we will be able to reach out to the millions of Californians who will vote in November,” Kapolczynski said. “We need to do more to let California voters know that Barbara Boxer is focused on creating jobs and turning the economy around.”

The campaigns for Feingold and Reid didn’t respond to DC Agenda’s request for comment.

Mings said he couldn’t predict whether these senators would emerge victorious in their re-election campaigns. Still, he noted that they have an advantage because they’re incumbents, who traditionally fare better in elections.

“It’s not necessarily as big an advantage this year to be an incumbent as it is in other cycles, but it’s still [a] humongous advantage to be [an] incumbent, in terms of visibility, in terms of the organization and operations that they have, so I certainly wouldn’t count any of them out,” Mings said.

Hari Sevugan, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that it’s important for LGBT people to support these Democrats in their re-election campaigns because the party “values equality, inclusion and fairness.”

“From expanding partnership benefits in the workplace to lifting the ban on travel for those living with HIV/AIDS, from passage of hate crimes legislation to beginning to end [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell] — we have worked to advance gay-rights in all corners of our society,” he said. “It’s not where we want to be yet, but we are moving forward.”

Sevugan warned “the progress we made could be lost” and “we could once again move backward” if Democrats aren’t re-elected or lose their control of Congress.

“We’ve seen what’s happened in Virginia where a Republican governor has taken the Commonwealth backward in history,” he said. “That is why we are committed to working with the LGBT community to elect allies that will continue to move the country toward fulfilling its promise of equality and justice for all.”

Mings said HRC has already given the maximum allowed donations of $10,000 each to Reid and Boxer to help them with their re-election campaigns. For Feingold’s race, Mings said HRC is waiting to see if Thompson will enter the fray.

“If he does, obviously, that changes our calculation quite a bit,” Mings said. “We need to step in and make sure that we’re engaging our membership in Wisconsin as much as possible to help [Feingold].”

In addition to moving to protect senators, Mings said HRC donated the maximum of $5,000 last year to many vulnerable allies in the U.S. House who are part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline Program.

“We don’t support all of those folks because some of them are pretty conservative Southerners or just conservative Blue Dogs, but we did make endorsements of a lot of those folks in late 2009 and made PAC contributions to them to try and help them with early money to boost their early financial filings,” Mings said.

Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director, said his organization for now is focused on field work that seeks to persuade key senators to vote in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and is “still trying, where we can, to mobilize in support of ENDA, expecting a vote in the House in next couple weeks.”

But around mid-to-late summer, Rouse said HRC will “pivot big time and shift all of our resources” to re-electing supporters in Congress, especially in the Senate.

“Clearly it’s going to take a few months to really flesh out, but our membership is already being messaged that our No. 1 priority this fall is going to be to re-elect our friends and mobilize our members as much as possible,” Rouse said.

Rouse said HRC will be as “strategic as possible” in determining the best way to support its allies, but it’s too early to say what exactly the plan will be. Rouse noted that polling data for these races is still early and many states still have primary elections.

“What is clear right now is that we’ll be spending the significant amount of our resources on defense and protecting our friends and making sure that they’re back there in 2011 and beyond,” he said.

Even with HRC’s field team working to re-elect these senators, Rouse said it’s important for LGBT people to look to themselves to ask what they’re doing to help in the election.

“One can discuss and look at the polls about where Harry Reid is, how’s he doing, and what’s going on, but the fact of the matter is we need to make sure that anyone we know that lives in Nevada is working as hard as they can to help re-elect Harry Reid,” Rouse said. “So we can ask those questions, but we really have to ask, ‘What are you doing to make sure that Harry Reid gets re-elected? What are you doing to help make sure Barbara Boxer gets re-elected?’”

Rouse said it’s important that LGBT people are visible and working to help the re-election of congressional supporters.

“Once we’re in full election mode, we need to be there on the campaign trail supporting our allies and working really hard to be visible in helping them be re-elected because they will remember that we are there,” he said.

But could incumbent lawmakers become victims of political apathy among LGBT people if legislative priorities like ENDA and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” don’t move this year?

Michael Cole, an HRC spokesperson, said LGBT voters are “certainly” looking to this Congress for “action on pressing equality issues” and will be mindful of this progress as November approaches.

“That being said, there are a number of pro-LGBT champions up for reelection this year who have the record to deserve whole hearted support from the community,” he said.

But Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director for GOProud, a gay conservative group, said LGBT voters should carefully consider whether to support incumbent lawmakers this year.

“There [are] a lot of issues that gay people care about and there isn’t a single one of those Democrats, in my opinion, who have done anything that I would deem worthy of re-election,” LaSalvia said. “So ask yourself as a gay voter, ‘Well, what have they done that I agree with?’ And I’ll bet you that gay and lesbian [voters] can look at any of those senators and say, ‘You’re fired!’”

Should enough Democrats lose their seats this fall, control of either chamber of Congress could switch hands. Republicans would have to take 10 seats in the Senate and 41 seats in the House to regain control of both chambers of Congress. Such a loss of control would recall the 1994 election, when Republicans retook control of the House and Senate during Democratic President Bill Clinton’s first term in office.

LaSalvia said it’s too early to tell whether Democrats will lose control of Congress this fall, but noted that the situation would become clearer as the year progresses.

“I think it’s way too early to tell, but certainly they would lose seats, and all signs [show] gains by the Republicans,” he said. “I think that we’ve got a long summer ahead of us and the electoral picture and landscape will be a lot clearer when we get to September.”

Mings said he didn’t think Democrats would lose control of Congress because not enough seats are in jeopardy, but he noted that polling and fundraising numbers indicate the party will lose some seats.

“So the thing that’s important to remember is that a lot of people were caught off guard in 1994, and that’s something the Democrats are not going to let happen this time,” he said. “They’re really making sure that their folks are prepared for a really tough, brutal, expensive election and they’re out there really trying to show that their candidates are doing that.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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