Hailed as a watershed moment for the LGBT movement, Election Day yielded several milestones that political observers say will have a profound impact on the advancement of LGBT rights and marriage equality going forward.
Here are five takeaways from an evening that saw wins for marriage equality at the ballot and the election for the first time of an openly gay U.S. Senate candidate — not to mention the re-election of a U.S. president who endorsed marriage equality.
1. The sky’s the limit for gay candidates seeking political office
Lesbian U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin made history when she became the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate in a highly contested race against former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. She’ll be part of a record number of as many as seven openly gay, lesbian and bisexual candidates elected to Congress and 121 candidates endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund elected to various offices throughout the country.
Baldwin’s sexual orientation was virtually a non-issue during the campaign. The only time it came up was when Brian Nemoir, a Thompson campaign official, circulated a video of her dancing at a gay Pride festival and told media outlets, “Clearly, there’s no one better positioned to talk ‘heartland values’ than Tammy.” The incident resulted in negative press for Thompson, who apologized for his aide’s action.
The glass ceiling broken by Baldwin could be a hopeful sign for other LGBT officials seeking office — such as lesbian New York City Council Chair Christine Quinn, who’s likely to run for mayor of the nation’s largest city in 2013 — that sexual orientation needn’t be a factor even when pursuing the highest offices in the nation.
Dan Pinello, who’s gay and a political scientist at the City University of New York, said Baldwin’s election “was a remarkable achievement” as was the the election of additional openly gay people to the House.
“An LGBT candidate no longer has to worry about facing his or her sexual orientation in terms of it being an impediment in running for public office,” Pinello said. “Tammy Baldwin most clearly demonstrates that, her being elected the first openly gay or lesbian senator.”
Some barriers have yet to fall. Gay Republican Richard Tisei failed in his bid to unseat incumbent Democrat Rep. John Tierney from a House seat in Massachusetts, which means the LGBT contingent in Congress will be entirely Democratic and an openly gay non-incumbent Republican has yet to win election to Congress. No transgender candidate has won election to Congress, although Stacie Laughton, a Democrat, was elected in New Hampshire as the first openly transgender person to a state legislature in the country.
Denis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesperson, noted that 40 state legislatures will now have LGBT representation and said the priority for his organization over the next 10 years is to elect an openly LGBT person to each state throughout the country.
“That matters greatly at the state level; it matters greatly at the municipal level,” Dison said. “There are some states out there where there’s one out elected official, and that’s kind of a very tenuous position, and we want to make sure that we are building capacity — and that’s states that people don’t talk about very much: the Nebraskas and Kansas.”
2. Obama’s support of marriage equality was a good political move
At the time President Obama completed his 19-month “evolution” in May and announced his personal support for marriage rights for gay couples, many political observers feared a backlash against him at the polls.
Many predicted — as it turns out, correctly — that states once considered battlegrounds —Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana — would fall in the Republican column because of their large evangelical populations. Whether Obama would be able to make the difference in the Electoral College to reach 270 votes was unclear.
But the result was positive — most initially in terms of financing for the Obama campaign. According to an analysis from National Public Radio, donations to Obama nearly tripled in the immediate period after the announcement. The campaign took in nearly $9 million over three days, compared to $3.4 million in the three previous days. The Washington Blade reported anecdotally that while many major donors had already maxed out their contributions, Obama’s new support for marriage equality resulted in his supporters making more small donations to the campaign.
Richard Socarides, a gay New York advocate who pushed Obama to support same-sex marriage, said coming out for marriage equality helped Obama not only in terms of donations before the election, but energized LGBT voters to come to the polls.
“I think it excited Democrats and young voters and gay and lesbian voters,” Socarides said. “His margin of victory in the popular vote was less than his vote among gays and lesbians, so I think gays and lesbians turned out for him.”
Socarides pointed to exit polling showing gay voters made up 5 percent of the electorate and 77 percent of them voted for Obama — an increase from the 2008 election — as evidence the gay vote is significant and helped Obama claim victory.
The youth vote was also significant in the election. According to the early National Exit Poll conducted by Edison Research, Obama won 60 percent of the youth vote, compared to 36 percent for Romney. Voters from ages 18 to 29 represented 19 percent of the electorate, which is an increase of one percentage point from 2008.
Pinello said Obama’s support for marriage equality helped drive to the polls younger voters, who are generally more supportive of same-sex marriage.
“The Obama campaign used marriage equality as a means to target younger voters to turn out in greater numbers as has been the case in the past,” Pinello said. “I think that was probably fairly wise of the Obama campaign. I think they succeeded in strengthening and increasing the size of their base in doing so.”
3. LGBT support alone won’t save Republicans in moderate districts
Despite the apparent support that Obama won as a result of coming out for marriage equality, Republicans in office who were supportive of LGBT issues didn’t fare as well in the 2012 election.
In Massachusetts, Tisei was notable among those Republicans. Also of note is freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, who lost to gay Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney; Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), who voted for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal even before the Pentagon report came out in favor of open service; and Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), who during her five terms in Congress voted against a Federal Marriage Amendment and in favor of ENDA and hate crimes legislation. U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon in Connecticut was also defeated; she supported Defense of Marriage Act repeal.
These Republicans were supported by gay GOP groups. The American Unity PAC, which was working to support pro-LGBT Republicans, notably spent a total of $420,000 in advertising to protect Bono Mack; $260,000 in Connecticut for McMahon; $540,000 in Biggert’s campaign; $530,000 in the Tisei race and $260,000 in ad buys on behalf of Hayworth. But each of these investments ended in losses.
Jeff Cook, senior adviser to the American Unity PAC, blamed the losses on the general poor showing by the Republican Party during the 2012 election and said the party as a whole needs to adapt to survive.
“It was a tough night for Republicans in most of the country,” Cook added. “The impact was particularly felt in moderate, swing districts where our party’s brand too often has limited our candidates’ appeal. It’s increasingly clear that there is a need to modernize the Republican Party, not only to win full inclusion for gay and lesbian Americans, but to ensure that the GOP can compete and win in the 21st century.”
Cook noted that Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), pro-LGBT Republicans who were also recipients of funds from the American Unity PAC, won re-election. These candidates weren’t in as highly contested races.
4. The national trend in favor of marriage equality is real
Four states yielded good news for supporters of same-sex marriage on Tuesday night: Maine approved a voter-initiated referendum legalizing same-sex marriage; voters in Maryland and Washington upheld same-sex marriage laws passed by the legislatures put up for referenda; and Minnesota voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have restricted marriage to one man, one woman.
The wins were a remarkable turnaround after loses in years past, breaking a losing streak in 32 states where same-sex marriage lost at the ballot. Moreover, the wins also validate national polls showing a gradual rise in support for same-sex marriage, which has led to a bare majority supporting marriage rights for gay couples.
Lanae Erickson, a lesbian and director of social policy and politics for the moderate group Third Way, said the election demonstrated marriage equality is coming into the mainstream after having been a hot-button issue for many years.
“I think this election showed that marriage and LGBT issues are no longer going to be a divisive social issue in the way they have been in the past,” Erickson said. “It definitely shows that the losing season that we had is relegated to history and now we’re in a new season where we can win frequently if not most of the time, especially on marriage.”
The victories have spurred talk about which states will be next to legalize same-sex marriage as Illinois and Minnesota are in position to take action in 2013. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has said he would favor allowing a referendum on same-sex marriage, but LGBT advocates in the state have dismissed that option.
Pinello warned that the marriage equality side won by a slim margin in these states — in Washington State, for example, the marriage law was approved by 52 percent as votes continued to trickle in — and said LGBT advocates shouldn’t attempt to place the issue on the ballot in a year other than a presidential election when the youth and progressive turnout isn’t high.
“If activists were to decide then to try it again in other states like Oregon, for example, in 2014, an off-year election, I think it might be a mistake because, again, the part of the population who are LGBT friendly tend not to turn out as much in off-year elections,” Pinello said.
5. The influence of anti-gay groups is waning
The Election Day results were a disaster for social conservative groups trying to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage and elect Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The day after the election, the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown issued a statement saying the American public still favors marriage between one man, one woman, but his organization was up against “a huge financial advantage” from marriage equality supporters.
In an email message to supporters on Wednesday, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins dismissed the results at the ballot, saying, “And while homosexuals may be celebrating an end to our movement’s perfect record, they still have a long way to go to match the 32 states where Americans voted overwhelmingly to protect the union of a man and woman.”
Erickson said although NOM is a one-issue group and unlikely to change its tune even in the wake of its losses, social conservative groups may seek to veer away from demonizing LGBT people.
“I think a lot of the other social conservative groups will turn their attention toward other issues because they realize that the momentum on this one just is not in their favor,” Erickson said. “They’re pushing a lot, for example, to say, ‘Yeah, younger people are trending better on LGBT issues, but they’re more pro-life than their older counterparts and we can still get them on immigration and we can still get them on abortion.”
One question is whether heads will roll at these organizations as a result of their failures on Election Day. Will Brown and Perkins be forced to step down? The Huffington Post reported on Wednesday that a Republican operative said billionaire donors who contributed to the Republican Party are “livid” about the election results. Similar heat may be coming down on social conservative groups.
Pinello said conservative organizations will likely have more difficulty finding funds as donations dry up in the wake of their defeats.
“I think their momentum has been taken away; they’ve been deflated,” Pinello said. “They’re no longer guaranteed a win, so, donors, I think would be much more circumspect about whether this is the best place to put their money.”