February 9, 2016 at 4:33 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
N.H. congressional race could pit gay vs. gay
Gay congressional candidates Dan Innis (left) and Shawn O'Connor could compete against each other in the general election. (Washington Blade photo of Innis by Michael Key; photo of O'Connor courtesy of CreagerCole Communications)

Gay congressional candidates Dan Innis (left) and Shawn O’Connor could compete against each other in the general election. (Washington Blade photo of Innis by Michael Key; photo of O’Connor courtesy of CreagerCole Communications)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — In the week of the presidential primary in New Hampshire, another race is brewing in the state that could pit two openly gay candidates — one Democrat, one Republican — against each other.

In a bid to represent New Hampshire’s 1st congressional district, Shawn O’Connor, a gay businessperson and lawyer who founded the college admission advisory firm Stratus Prep before selling the company, is competing against former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter for the Democratic nomination.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, gay business professor Dan Innis — the former dean of the business school at the University of New Hampshire — is for a second time challenging incumbent Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) after having lost the Republican nomination to the lawmaker in 2014.

If both candidates succeed in winning their party’s nomination on the day of the congressional primary on Sept. 13, New Hampshire’s 1st congressional district would be home to a national first: Two openly gay congressional candidates nominated by major parties competing against each other for a U.S. House seat.

In separate interviews with the Washington Blade, the two candidates outlined their visions if elected to Congress — and their plans reveal stark differences.

O’Connor said he formed an exploratory committee to pursue a congressional bid in February 2015 before Shea-Porter announced she’d pursue a sixth run because “people are ready for a change.”

“When this race went Republican last time, it’s gone back-and-forth between the same two members of Congress for about 10 years: Carol Shea-Porter and Frank Guinta,” O’Connor said. “I think it’s a seat that the right Democrat can definitely hold, and therefore, I decided to toss my hat into the ring without knowing who else might run.”

Among the items on O’Connor’s agenda are what he called “bread-and-butter” issues: Making it easier for small business owners to succeed and investing in infrastructure. According to O’Connor, 351 of the bridges in New Hampshire are designated as “red list,” which means they have a series of documented deficiencies getting worse over time.

But O’Connor, who has endorsed Bernard Sanders in the presidential election, also identified income inequality as among the issues he wants to tackle.

Until the minimum wage is raised to $15 an hour, O’Connor said he’ll only accept the current minimum wage as a salary from Congress, which would be $15,080 a year, and donate the remaining $159,000 to New Hampshire charities.

“I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is, and I just think it’s immoral to accept a salary of $174,000 a year and go around telling people it’s OK to live on $7.25 an hour,” O’Connor said.

Innis said he’s pursuing another bid for Congress because he had a good showing in the 2014 Republican congressional primary, earning 41 percent of the vote in the race against Guinta.

“Coming in at 41 percent as a first-time candidate against a semi-incumbent? That ain’t bad.” Innis said, adding he thinks he took that percentage of the vote because he ran as “a problem solver, not a political insider.”

But Innis took Guinta to task for allegedly violating campaign finance laws by taking $355,000 donated to him by his parents during his first House campaign in 2010. As a result of a settlement with the Federal Election Commission, Guinta in May 2015 paid a $15,000 fine and agreed to return his parents’ money.

Innis said the donation was unlawful and shamed Guinta for calling his opponents liars for bringing it up.

“And the liar was Frank. Period,” Innis said. “He broke the law, he knew he broke the law. He denied it for years, and when he was fined, he tried to further cover it up.”

In terms of policy differences, Innis said he differs with Guinta in some areas, although he doesn’t think the difference is terribly dramatic.

“I sit closer to New Hampshire on a number of social issues, and I’d further argue I’m more fiscally conservative than just about anyone you’d meet,” Innis said.

For Innis, the No. 1 crisis facing the country — in contrast to the views of others who say it’s the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria or climate change — is the nation’s $19 trillion debt.

“It’s money, and we don’t have enough,” Innis said. “And we spend too much. We’ve got to bring these two things in balance, and if we don’t the country — and I’m not overstating this — the country is doomed, right? I understand business. I studied business. I’ve got an advanced degree in this stuff. So, I’m not blowing smoke. I know what I’m talking about. We’re doomed.”

Innis was coy about whom he’s backing in the presidential election, but said the way candidates approach LGBT rights is something he factors into his support.

“There are certain candidates that are more open to equality issues, and those are the candidates that I’d certainly get behind,” Innis said. “There are other candidates who are clearly closed to equality and it’s very, very difficult to support them, and you know who those are.”

In terms of LGBT rights, O’Connor identified as a priority a federal LGBT non-discrimination bill known as the Equality Act to “make sure LGBT equality is complete,” but also said we must ensure the United States is “a real social, moral leader” on international LGBT rights.

“Once we get full equality nationwide, and we’ve accomplished marriage, I think that incorporating LGBT rights more fully into our international policy would be really important, particularly in Africa,” O’Connor said.

Innis said if he’s elected, he’d “push for” a federal prohibition on employment discrimination against LGBT people, arguing his position in the Republican caucus would hasten its passage.

“If you’ve got a majority party that has the ability to bring that thing forward, and then you add someone to the party who is gay and who’s affected by this stuff, who can speak to the other members and leadership, I think the dynamic changes,” Innis said. “It always changes when you get to know someone and when you’ve got them sitting there with you dealing with the issue, and I do think we’ll have more success in pushing that forward if candidates like me are elected.”

Innis said he couldn’t immediately commit to co-sponsoring the Equality Act, but based on what he heard on the legislation as described by the Blade said it “sounds like something that is easy to support.”

Both candidates had differing takes on the idea of facing off in the general election as a gay candidate against a gay opponent.

O’Connor said it would be “exciting” and reflect the progress made on acceptance of LGBT people in New Hampshire.

“I think the nice thing about it in a way is in a purple state like New Hampshire — trending blue, but purple — to have two LGBT candidates face off in a general election really demonstrates that we’re becoming fully integrated into the political system, which I think is wonderful,” O’Connor said.

But O’Connor said the national LGBT community should support him if they both were to receive their nominations if Innis won’t back affirmative action, support women’s reproductive freedom or fight income inequality.

“Dan Innis has a very conservative — he doesn’t have a voting record — but based on his statements, he’s a pretty conservative candidate,” O’Connor said. “I believe the LGBT community as a community has been marginalized for decades, if not centuries, and there’s a responsibility to help others.”

Innis expressed skepticism O’Connor would be able to beat Shea-Porter. If he had to face off against him in the general election, Innis said the gay vs. gay nature of the race “wouldn’t matter” to him.

“I think I’ve defined myself as a candidate on the issues and on my background and my experience, and people now are used to the idea and more interested in what I have to say on the issues,” Innis said.

They both face challenges in defeating an incumbent on one hand and one-time incumbent on the other who have name recognition in New Hampshire. Innis has the added challenge of facing another potential competitor for the Republican nomination: State Rep. Pamela Tucker.

Nathan Gonzalez, editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzalez Political Report, said it’s hard to put specific odds on an O’Connor vs. Innis matchup, but it’s “unlikely” both candidates will make it to the general election.

“Guinta is in an incredibly precarious electoral position, so it’s not hard to see him losing the primary,” Gonzalez said. “But Innis doesn’t have a clean shot at winning the nomination with Tucker in the race. Shea-Porter has her fair share of general election losses, but I have a hard time believing she is going to lose in a primary, until proven otherwise.”

One question is which candidate national LGBT groups — the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund — will support. In the 2014 election, the Victory Fund endorsed Innis and the Human Rights Campaign endorsed Shea-Porter.

O’Connor said he applied for endorsements with both organizations, but was told by both they were staying out of the race at the time. Innis said he’ll likely seek support from the Victory Fund again, but had harsh words for the Human Rights Campaign.

“They endorsed Hillary, I’m not sure they should be playing in this,” Innis said. “To me, their job is to advocate for rights for equality; it’s not to pick candidates at a presidential level. Part of the problem here is I’ve never thought of HRC as so political, but it clearly is, but HRC I always thought was more politically driven rather than agenda driven, and they seem to be moving more toward the politics.”

Jarod Keith, spokesperson for the Victory Fund, said his organization usually stays out of races if multiple candidates apply for support and meet endorsement criteria.

“We typically don’t endorse a candidate if they’re running against another candidate who also qualifies for our endorsement,” Keith said. “In order to qualify, candidates have to be openly LGBT, support LGBT rights and a woman’s right to choose, and demonstrate a clear path to victory. Endorsements are made by the Victory Fund’s Victory Campaign Board.”

Brandon Lorenz, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, didn’t say when his organization would make an endorsement in the race.

“HRC has not made an endorsement in this race at this time,” Lorenz said. “In the 2014 cycle, HRC supported incumbent Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.”

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

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