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The Rainbow Wave

Will LGBTQ candidates make a difference in the midterm elections?


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Credit: Joakim Honkasalo

 

No one thought the primary race for Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District would capture national attention, but it’s been that kind of year. Races that looked like clear-cut wins for white men have turned into come-from-behind victories for women—particularly minority women. KS03 was one of those. Sharice Davids seemed an unlikely political candidate in a solidly red state. The Native American lesbian comes from a working-class Kansas background. She was raised in a single-parent household, and worked her way through a local community college.

 

As amazing as it is that Davids went on to Cornell Law School, became a White House Fellow in the Obama administration, and had a side career as an MMA fighter, she then decided to run for Congress to unseat Trump-friendly Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder. She wasn’t alone. Five other Democrats had the same idea, and one, Brent Welder, had worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who endorsed him. Davids got her own endorsement: The Kansas City Star chose her out of what they termed “a field of exceptional candidates.” Yet Welder was getting all the mainstream press, posing with Sanders and getting spots on CNN and MSNBC.

 

Davids went door-to-door looking for votes. She met with possible constituents on a daily basis, posing for selfies with prospective voters and posting them on Twitter. She even acquired a namesake, a newborn baby named Sharice. Kansas City native Janelle Monae endorsed her. Margaret Cho followed, as did Melissa Etheridge. Money started flowing into her campaign. But in the Aug. 7 primary, early returns put Welder in the lead, and reporters had him ready to declare victory within hours after the polls closed. It took all night to count the votes, but by the next morning Davids had won, besting Welder and the other four candidates, all of whom had spent far more than she had.Within another 24 hours, the seat that had been slated as safe Republican was suddenly listed as top-tier for Democrats.

 

Davids’s campaign video, which garnered nearly 20,000 views, has her in the MMA ring, declaring, “I’ve had to fight my whole life. Because of who I am, who I love, and where I started.” Davids is one of an exciting roster of first-time candidates running to make and change history. If elected, Davids would become the first Native American woman in the House. Ever. She would be only the second lesbian in Congress. Ever. America has gone without a Native American woman in Congress for 242 years. Shocking. With November around the corner, candidates like Davids are making news and shifting narratives. With two far-right extremist Supreme Court picks, an attorney general who has blocked lesbians and gay men from suing for anti-gay discrimination, an executive order instituting a ban against trans persons signing up for the military, and another supporting religious freedom laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people, Trump is the most anti-LGBTQ president in recent history.

 

Democrats are battling to regain control of Congress to keep Trump’s extremist policies in check. It’s a fight that will require more than one MMA-style combatant. But the kind of get-out-the-vote campaign Davids ran in Kansas could turn a whole lot of red seats blue. And there are more like hers. Gina Ortiz Jones would be the first Filipina American and another lesbian in Congress if she wins her seat for the 23rd District in Texas. A former Air Force intelligence officer with degrees in economics and East Asian studies from Boston University, as well as a degree from the War College, she served for years under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and is an Iraq War vet with an impressive resume in national security and intelligence. Ortiz Jones, whose Facebook page tells a charming story of her coming out to her mother, is up against incumbent Rep. Will Hurd in a race that is surprisingly close, for America’s most populous red state. The race has gone from safely Republican to a toss-up.

 

Lauren Baer worked in the Obama State Department for six years as a senior advisor to former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and to U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. She left the State Department to work for another former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Baer is running for Florida’s 18th District. If elected, she would be the first lesbian married to a same-sex partner to serve in the House.

 

Angie Craig is a married lesbian mother of four running for Minnesota’s 2nd  District. This race has been slated by the Democratic Party as one of the top 10 most flippable. GOP incumbent Jason Lewis narrowly won in 2016. Nearly 20 years ago, Craig had to fight her way through the courts to gain custody of her oldest son, who is adopted. That fight has informed her candidacy: She wants everyone to have the same rights, and knows that many battles are far from won. Nancy Pelosi has campaigned for her, but the race remains a statistical dead heat. And that red-blue split defines the midterms story. To regain the House of Representatives, Democrats must hold the 193 seats they have and flip 25 more.

 

To regain the Senate, Democrats must win 28 of the 35 seats that are being contested this year—which means holding on to all 26 of the Democratic seats up for re-election as well as winning two more.

 

It’s huge. Not just a Blue Wave, but a Blue Tsunami.

 

At the helm of this effort is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has raised millions for House races and become a lightning rod for Republicans intent on maintaining Trump’s power.

 

Flipping the House would reinstate Pelosi as Speaker. In an August 13 column in the New York Times, Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman called Pelosi “the greatest Speaker in modern times,” detailing her progressive accomplishments for the good of the country. In what’s been called “the Hillary Effect,” more women than ever before are running for office. This Pink Wave has been driven forward by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s call to women to “run for office” to beat back Trump. At a talk she gave at Rutgers earlier this year, Clinton said, “The numbers of women who are running in these midterm elections and special elections that we’ve seen in the last couple of months is very encouraging to me. We have to keep that pipeline full. It’s not one and out. It’s keep getting more women to run, keep convincing young women to be part of it.”

 

Her message has been heard: 575 women have run for the House, for the Senate, or for governor. It’s a grassroots revolution, with women like Davids and Ortiz Jones determined to have their voices heard. According to the Center for American Women at Rutgers University, the number of women challenging seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is 350 percent more than it was in 2016. Emily’s List, a feminist political group that trains women for public office and supports the candidacies of pro-choice women, says more than 26,000 women contacted the organization for information about starting a political campaign in the past year.

 

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, spoke about the wave at Ready to Run, a training program for female candidates. Duffy credits the Me Too movement with some candidacies, but thinks there’s another rationale as well. “In politics, I think what you’re seeing is enormous frustration among women. I think it’s frustration that some of the biggest issues in our country, and some of the issues that are very important to women, are not being solved.” But more women running for office doesn’t necessarily translate into more women winning. In 2016, 40 women ran for the Senate and only six won.

 

The hardest glass ceiling to break—other than the presidency—seems to be the one in any governor’s office. There are only seven female governors—four Republicans and three Democrats. More women running for governor has yet to translate into more women winning those seats. The last woman to win a gubernatorial race was Gina Raimondo in 2014 when she won in Rhode Island, and three of the seven current women governors were appointed to fill out terms vacated by men.

 

In the House, dozens more women have run and won seats, but the House still only has 84 women out of 438 seats. If all the planets aligned and every woman running won her race, there could be 226 by the morning of November 7. As exciting as that prospect might be, it’s unlikely. More likely is the idea that the Rainbow Wave of LGTBQ candidates will result in more representation. The Victory Fund, an organization dedicated to electing LGBTQ candidates, cites nearly 200 lesbian, bisexual, and trans women candidates among the women running for office. In Wisconsin, the sole out lesbian in Congress and the first out gay person in the Senate, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, is fighting to maintain her seat despite the several million dollars in GOP money that has been pledged to oust her. Current polling has her in a tough challenge with Republican State Senator Leah Vukmir, who won her own bruising Republican primary on Aug. 14. Polling for Baldwin against Vukmir had them in a dead heat with each at 50 percent.

 

On both sides, money from outside the state is fueling the race, which Republicans believe they can win. In Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, the sole out bisexual in Congress, is running to replace Republican Jeff Flake in the Senate. Arizona hasn’t had a Democratic senator in 25 years and has never had a woman senator. The GOP seat is currently at toss-up, with Sinema holding a slight lead. Kerri Evelyn Harris, a black lesbian, is running against incumbent Democrat Thomas Carper in a late-September primary. Two highly publicized races could give us the nation’s first out lesbian governors. Award-winning actor and Democratic Socialist Cynthia Nixon is running to unseat Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo in a tough, late-season New York primary that falls just weeks before the midterms.

 

In Texas, Democrat Lupe Valdez hopes to unseat the virulently anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice GOP incumbent Greg Abbott to become the first Latina governor of Texas and the first lesbian governor in the U.S. Valdez holds an MA in criminology and rose to the rank of captain in the military. As Dallas County sheriff, she was the highest ranked female law enforcement agent in Texas. The daughter of migrant workers, she notes, when talking about recent immigration battles, “My father lived knowing you could never be caught after dark on the other side of the tracks if you were Mexican.” 

 

In Oregon, Kate Brown fights to make history again. In 2016, as Oregon secretary of state, she was appointed governor when the popular three-term Democrat John Kitzhaber resigned due to corruption charges. Brown became the first openly bisexual woman to hold statewide office, as well as the first openly LGBTQ governor in the U.S. In Arizona, Kelly Fryer is a lesbian activist running in a three-way Democratic primary for governor, challenging GOP incumbent Doug Ducey.

 

On Aug. 14, Christine Hallquist made history by winning a four-way Democratic primary challenging GOP incumbent governor Phil Scott. Hallquist is the first transgender candidate to run for governor in the U.S. and will be the first trans governor in history, should she win. She said her transitioning while CEO of a Vermont electric company, and the support she received, helped her make the decision to run against the GOP governor she voted for in 2016. “Most of all, I am running because I must,” she asserts. “This is not a time in American history to sit back and be apathetic.”

 

Hallquist says, “November 8, 2016, I realized the world changed. I went to bed and of course, like any other trauma, I was in political depression, and I just didn’t know what to do. I mean, many of us in this country shed a lot of tears for what happened on November 8.” The night of the Vermont primary, Charlotte Clymer, a veteran and a member of Human Rights Campaign’s communications team, said, “As a transgender woman and someone who cares deeply about this country, Christine Hallquist’s win isn’t just historic. It’s also a powerful rebuke against this White House that has worked non-stop over 19 months to harm and erase transgender Americans. Tonight, I feel pride.”

 

Clymer’s words resonate. Nearly every state has a lesbian, bisexual, or trans woman candidate in local and state races. The momentum has a visceral power to it. The thought of so many new female faces in Congress or state houses or even governors’ mansions isn’t just enticing, it’s empowering. But women are still struggling to achieve representation in political office, 99 years after we won the right to vote. The choices lie before us for November. In a speech she gave at HRC earlier this year, Kyrsten Sinema, who went from living homeless as a child to getting her Ph.D. and a law degree, spoke about what we face in the midterms and in battling policies that cement inequality.

 

“The only way to win these important fights is if we’re willing to put aside our differences and engage each other in good faith. See, I’m running for the Senate, but I’m also running to stand up for the values that unite us as Americans. The right to define our own destinies. We here, we together, have a moral obligation to continue this work.”

 

 

 

 

 

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