By Lisa Keen
The political winds of change are shifting constantly these days, but that alone bodes well for gays.
In next week’s mid-term elections, those winds may well blow down one of the two Republican-held houses of Congress – a result that, at the very least, will put a halt to the routine emergence of anti-gay legislation. And though anti-gay marriage measures on the ballot in eight states, the winds of voter apathy seem to be dissipating a once convincing cry of wolf.
In one of the most politically volatile run-ups to an election day in years of politically volatile elections, the next three weeks promise nothing, if not everything:
* The Democrats need to win just six of the seats up for grabs in the Senate in order to regain control of that chamber, and as of deadline, they are leading in five. In three others races, the Democrat trails the Republican by two points or less, which amounts to a virtual tie, given margins of error.
* Even if the Democrats don’t win control of the Senate, one of that body’s most virulently anti-gay legislators -Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — is trailing his Democratic opponent by at least five points. The fact that he’s championed anti-gay marriage measures in the Senate is buried deep inside his campaign Web site. And his opponent, while no friend to equal marriage rights for gays, at least opposes a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.
* Ditto Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., who has championed the anti-gay marriage amendment in the House. Her margin of victory has been slipping in the past two elections and polling suggests her Democratic opponent this year may push her off the seat.
* Mark Foley – the Republican representative from Florida who resigned his seat Sept. 29 over inappropriate contact with teenage males working as Congressional pages – will almost certainly be replaced by a Democrat. But more than losing one seat in Congress, Republicans are worried they’ll be punished in the voting booth for not taking action to stop Foley’s follies years ago. And no matter how hard they try to spin the matter off as a “gay” problem, the blame keeps sticking to their coattails.
* And an analysis of recent U.S. Census data, out this month, shows not only that 30 percent more same-sex couples have identified themselves to federal survey takers, but that such couples are now reported in every Congressional district in the country. Translation: Every member of Congress has a constituent who is interested in achieving equal rights in marriage.
The bottom line is that gays appear to be poised to gain more from the Nov. 7 elections than in any other election in recent memory and, by the same token, likely to lose less.
In Senate races, the most endangered Republican seats have been held by legislators whose voting records on gay-related bills -as analyzed by the Human Rights Campaign in its just-released 2006 scorecard –have been zero (Pennsylvania’s Santorum, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, Montana’s Conrad Burns, Missouri’s Jim Talent, Virginia’s George Allen, and Tennessee’s Frist). Some political commentators have suggested that the loss of Santorum alone would constitute a political earthquake for conservatives because Santorum has been so bold in pushing the right-wing’s agenda in Congress.
The potential loss for gays in the Senate would be Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, who earned a perfect pro-gay score from HRC this year. Another pro-gay senator, incumbent Democrat Robert Menendez (with an HRC score of 88 this year) is clinging to a four- to five-point lead over his anti-gay Republican challenger.
In the House, Democrats need 15 seats to take control and a number of political pundits say strategists and consultants of both parties are predicting the Democrats will take them. But even if they don’t, the atmosphere is almost certainly going to improve in Congress on gay issues. Why? Because of the 30 seats in the House assessed as most likely to change parties on Nov. 7, 18 are currently held by Republicans who score zero on the HRC voting analysis and five others score under 50. Only three strongly pro-gay seats -openly gay Republican Jim Kolbe’s in Arizona (due to his retirement) and Republicans Robert Simmons and Christopher Shays in Connecticut–are considered vulnerable to the Democrats.
The next question, of course, is why the tide seems to be turning against Republicans. Essentially, voters have their pick of reasons: the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, the increasingly unpopular Republican president (his approval rating was 62 two years ago, now it’s 37), the negligent federal response after Hurricane Katrina, and -so some say– the Republican leadership’s failure to curtail Mark Foley’s inappropriate behavior with teenaged pages. What’s missing from the radar screen -at least so far– is any real blip from “gay marriage.” Yes, there are anti-gay initiatives on eight state ballots, but only three of them -Arizona, Tennessee, Virginia–are in states where they can make an impact on vulnerable Republican senate seats. And unlike previous elections, one or two might actually fail this year. In Arizona, as well as Colorado and Idaho, the initiatives appear to be garnering little of the enthusiasm they did in previous years and other states–where all 20 passed by wide margins.
In Republican stronghold Arizona, a statewide poll late last month showed that 60 percent of registered voters were prepared to vote against the measure. In equally Republican dominant Colorado, only 52 percent of voters polled are ready to support the measure; and 58 percent are prepared to give legal recognition to domestic partnerships. Even in Tennessee, where the latest poll show support is still strong, it is, nevertheless, an eroding base of support – down from 77 to 73 percent in one month.
Just as they did in 2004, leaders of right-wing conservative organizations are predicting that their voting base will stay home, claiming they’re dissatisfied that the Republican leadership hasn’t done enough to advance their issues. They warned Republicans about that in 2004, too, but exit polls indicated that 22 percent of voters that year said their main motivation was “moral values.” And on Sunday, they held a get-out-the-vote pep rally in Boston with a focus on same-sex marriage. The rally was webcast to churches around the country.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Matthew Shepard Foundation launched an advertising campaign October 12 to get out the LGBT vote. The campaign includes a national advertising buy in gay media outlets and an online campaign to provide voter information to the LGBT community and their supporters.
Meanwhile, HRC says a poll it commissioned Oct. 9-11 of 806 registered voters nationwide indicates most voters believe the Foley scandal is a Republican problem, not a gay one. Sixty-two percent said Foley’s inappropriate behavior with the pages was “typical of politicians.” When asked whether they thought it was “typical of gay men,” only 30 percent agreed.
Pre-election polls have limits, not the least of which is that, between now and Nov. 7, any number of things can happen to change voters minds. But so far, it appears that this whirlwind campaign is going to blow in a helpful direction.
By Lisa Keen