October 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Key Senate races a focus for LGBT community

On Election Day, many eyes will be focused on several key Senate races where lawmakers with a history of support for the LGBT community are facing tough challenges on the road to re-election.

By far the most high profile race in this group is taking place in Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is fighting for his political life against Republican Sharron Angle, a Tea Party candidate and former Nevada State Assembly member.

Several polls have Angle ahead of Reid by a few points. On Tuesday, Rasmussen Reports made public a poll that found Angle leading Reid by four percentage points among likely voters.

As majority leader, Reid is responsible for moving forward with pro-LGBT legislation in the Senate and would continue to decide the agenda if he wins on Election Day.

Reid has expressed support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A Mormon, Reid has also been critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ lead role in backing Proposition 8 in California, which ended same-sex marriage in the state in 2008.

Michael Mitchell, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, said a win for Reid is important to the LGBT community because some would likely blame his loss on his leadership on LGBT issues.

“I have a feeling that’s where the Republicans will go with this, and it will be over ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ or it will be that he was too liberal,” Mitchell said. “And, of course, our issues in that moniker of ‘too liberal.'”

In contrast to Reid, Angle has said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” shouldn’t be repealed until the Pentagon has a chance to finish its review of the policy.

Angle has also said in a questionnaire that she’d refuse campaign contributions from businesses that have pro-gay policies in place. She has, however, reportedly taken contributions from political action committees to which such businesses have donated.

The Republican candidate is also known for having ties to an anti-gay party in Nevada in which she once held membership, the American Independent Party.

In 1994, when Angle was involved in the group, the American Independent Party published a 16-page newspaper ad insert calling for a state constitutional amendment permitting discrimination against LGBT people. The insert refers to LGBT people as “sodomites” and portrays them as “child-molesting, HIV-carrying, Hell-bound freaks.”

Despite Angle’s positions, one Republican LGBT group is looking forward to seeing Reid go because of the economic conditions facing Nevada.

Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the race in Nevada is “as much about voter distaste with Reid’s record as it is about the positions presented by Angle and her campaign.”

“Nevadans want a senator who will stand for their values and deliver for a state that has a 15 percent unemployment rate, not a legislator who is jockeying for legislation to favor the White House agenda first and foremost,” Berle said.

While enjoying general support among LGBT people, Reid has been criticized for not moving fast enough on pro-LGBT legislation.

Some supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal said he politicized a repeal measure in September by limiting the number of amendments that could have been offered on the bill once it reached the floor.

The Senate was unable to move forward with the legislation, and many senators said the amendment issue prevented them from voting in the affirmative.

But Mitchell said he’s “tired of hearing Republicans and other folks” blame Reid for the failure of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the Senate because he said the majority leader was doing his job by limiting the number of amendments on the bill.

“With the incredible obstructionism from the Republicans that were blocking every single bill almost,” Mitchell said. “There are like 420 bills that the Senate needed to pick up that the House passed. As majority leader, he needs to start to pull things together to try and get things through.”

Mitchell said faulting Reid for the failure of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the Senate is “placing the blame in wrong place” and said “the blame is solely on the Republicans there.”

Another race of interest is taking place in Wisconsin, where U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is running against Republican Ron Johnson, a wealthy plastics manufacturer.

Many polls have Feingold trailing Johnson. On Tuesday, Rasmussen published a poll that found Feingold behind Johnson by seven percentage points among Wisconsin likely voters. Cook Political Report identifies the race as “leans Republican.”

Feingold is known for having long been a friend to the LGBT community. In 1996, he was among 14 senators to vote against passage of the Defense of Marriage Act.

In the current Congress, Feingold has co-sponsored ENDA and legislation that would end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Wisconsin senator also was responsible for an amendment to State Department budget legislation that would require the U.S. government to take more active role in LGBT issues overseas.

Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said Feingold deserves support from the LGBT community because he has long been a “progressive champion, broadly, and particularly for the LGBT community for years.

“I think that are so many issues in play out in the field that it is hard, I think, for LGBT people to see such a champion in a tough race,” Cole said. “It speaks to the difficult political environment that’s out there right now.”

Mitchell praised Feingold for sometimes being a maverick and said his loss would be “heartbreaking” because his voice is distinct among the Senate Democratic caucus. Earlier this year, the senator joined with most Republicans to vote against financial reform legislation.

“He doesn’t always vote lock step,” Mitchell said. “He’s very much a freethinker, and I think we’re seeing less and less of that in both houses actually.”

Still, an anti-gay label doesn’t fit Johnson. The Republican candidate said he would support repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the condition that the Pentagon backs an end to the law.

Last month, Johnson told reporters that he favors nondiscrimination, but wants to see the Pentagon’s report on how “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal would affect operations. He said if the report were convincing, he would vote to remove the statute from the books.

Berle said the Wisconsin race represents “a remarkable contrast” between a long-serving politician and “a businessman who knows what it takes to sign the front of a paycheck. Berle also commended Johnson for being willing to vote for repeal of the military’s gay ban.

“Johnson’s support for ending the failed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy is representative of a broad swath of Republicans throughout the country who favor open service,” Berle said.

In the center of the country, another race is playing out where the candidates have divergent views on gay issues.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is vying to retain his seat against Republican Ken Buck, a Tea Party candidate and district attorney in the state.

The race between Buck and Bennet is seen as among the closest in the country. On Monday, Public Policy Polling published numbers finding that, among likely Colorado voters, 47 percent support Buck and while another 47 percent support Bennet.

Buck has made several anti-gay comments throughout the course of his campaign. In a September debate, Buck said he opposes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal because he said the U.S. military should be as “homogeneous as possible.”

In another recent debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Buck said being gay is a choice and compared it to alcoholism.

“I think that birth has an influence over it, like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that, basically, you have a choice,” he said.

By contrast, Bennet has taken pro-LGBT positions since his appointment to his seat in the current Congress, such as signing on as a co-sponsor of ENDA and legislation to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Cole said the choice for LGBT people in the Colorado race is distinct based on the positions of the candidates.

“You have Michael Bennet, who has been a strong voice for the community running against Buck, who just on ‘Meet the Press’ last weekend made his dangerous comments about LGBT people,” Cole said.

Mitchell also said a win for Bennet is important in Colorado because of statements Buck has made against gays as well as recent remarks against the separation of church and state.

“Ken Buck is little crazy, right?” Mitchell said. “His statement of separation of church and state … I think when you start to peel the layers down from that, I think that’s a pretty extreme view.”

But Berle characterized the Colorado race as “a referendum on the failed Democratic leadership” in the Senate.

“Coloradans are looking for a leader who will oppose out of control government spending and support economic policies designed to get the economy back on track,” Berle said.

Berle said Log Cabin “strongly disagrees with Buck’s belief that sexual orientation is a choice,” but recalled the candidate’s previous work as a prosecutor.

“We remember that this is the same man who as district attorney zealously prosecuted the murderers of a young transgender woman in 2008,” Berle said. “Despite our disagreements, this is evidence that Buck is willing to listen on issues important to gay and lesbian Americans.”

Another tight race is unfolding in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a two-term House lawmaker and former Navy admiral, is vying for an open seat against Pat Toomey, a former U.S. House member and former president of the Club for Growth.

A poll published Tuesday by Reuters/Ipsos found that race between Sestak and Toomey is a dead heat. Among the Pennsylvania adults who were polled, 46 percent favored Sestak in the election and another 46 percent supported Toomey.

During his time in the U.S. House, Sestak has been vocal in his support for the LGBT community and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He’s voted for hate crimes protection legislation as well as a version of ENDA.

In contrast, during his earlier tenure in the U.S. House, Toomey voted for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004 and a measure in 1999 that would have banned adoption by gays in D.C.

Still, Toomey said earlier this month during a debate he would back repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” if military leaders can ensure an end to the law will improve and not undermine its capabilities.

Berle emphasized support for Toomey based on the former U.S. House member’s “consistent voice for fiscal conservatism.”

“His message resonates with Pennsylvanians who are particularly annoyed with being represented by Sen. Arlen Specter who put his own career ahead of his constituents’ interests when he switched parties,” Berle said.

But Cole also emphasized the distinction between Sestak and Toomey in the Senate race based on the Democratic candidate’s support for the LGBT community.

“You have Joe Sestak, the highest-ranking military officer serving in Congress, who is a staunch supporter of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal, running against the guy whom Rick Santorum called ‘too conservative,” Cole said.

Similarly, Mitchell said a win for Sestak in Pennsylvania is important because the Keystone State is considered a “bellwether” for the rest of the country.

“It’s very middle of the road,” Mitchell said. “I think for there to be a win by Sestak in Pennsylvania softens the blow for some of the other races that we may lose.”

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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