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LGBT House candidates look to help Dems take control

by Lisa Keen

Texas congressional candidate Lorie Burch. Photo: Courtesy Burch for Congress campaign
Texas congressional candidate Lorie Burch. Photo: Courtesy Burch for Congress campaign  

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) stunned many people with his announcement earlier this month that he would retire from office in January. But he was just following a crowd of Republicans in Congress (more than three dozen) who had already decided they would not run again. Their mostly unspoken motivations seemed clear: They either felt they could no longer support their party's leader - President Donald Trump - or feared they could not be re-elected.

Ever since Trump took office, polls have shown that voters would prefer that Democrats control the House and Senate. Asked which party's candidate they would support in a congressional election, they said Democrat. Even the Fox News poll said so.

The implications for LGBT people of having Democrats win control of even one chamber are profound. The Republican-majority Congress has completely blocked any consideration of pro-LGBT legislation, has approved anti-LGBT judicial nominees, and advanced bills with language that eliminates many protections for LGBT people. For example, the House approved a funding bill that included language reaffirming an executive order from Trump that allows religious exemptions to federal non-discrimination policies. And Republican leadership in the House orchestrated the defeat of a funding bill with pro-LGBT language. The Senate confirmed a U.S. Supreme Court nominee (Neil Gorsuch) and 11 federal appeals court nominees opposed by LGBT legal groups.

Some quick numbers
Republicans currently hold 237 of the House's 435 seats; Democrats hold 193; and there are five vacancies.

More than 10 percent of House Republicans (27) have announced, like Ryan, that they will not seek re-election in November. That compares to 5 percent of Democrats (11). Four Senate seats are being vacated by incumbent Republicans (compared to one Democrat).

To become the majority in the House, either party needs 218 seats. So, for Democrats to become the majority, they need a net gain of 25 in November.

There are at least 21 LGBT congressional candidates this year - four incumbents and 17 newcomers. All but one of the newcomers are Democrats; none are Republicans; one is a Green Party member.

The chances for success by the newcomers can be calculated on such things as whether they are running to fill a vacant seat or against a strong incumbent, what the demographic and political make-up of their district is, whether they have put together a strong and well-funded campaign; and whether they have run for or held elective office before. So far, at least seven of the 14 show a strong chance of winning in November: Matt Heinz (Arizona 2nd District); Katie Hill (California, 25th); Lauren Baer (Florida 18th); David Richardson (Florida 27th); Angie Craig (Minnesota 2nd); Chris Pappas (New Hampshire 1st); and Gina Ortiz Jones (Texas 23rd).


Ohio congressional candidate Rick Neal. Photo: Neal for Congress campaign  

While the other 10 have significant obstacles to overcome, most have developed impressive campaigns and are still very much in the running: Jim Gray (Kentucky 6th); Pat Davis (New Mexico 1st); Rick Neal (Ohio 15th); Lorie Burch (Texas 3rd); Mary Wilson (Texas 21st); Eric Holguin (Texas 27th); and James Partsch-Galvan (Texas 29th).

The other three are running underdog campaigns. Lesbians Marge Doyle (California, 8th) and Jamie McLeod-Skinner (Oregon, 2nd) are running against GOP incumbents in districts considered safe for Republicans. Jess Phoenix (California, 25th), who identifies as queer, isn't expected to survive the June 5 primary.

The next primary coming up is Neal's, in Ohio May 8. A newcomer to politics and a former Peace Corps worker, he's raised an impressive $396,000, according to the Federal Elections Commission. His Democratic opponent has not reported any income yet to the FEC. But whoever wins the primary faces incumbent Republican Representative Steve Stivers, who is unopposed in the GOP primary and has already raised more than $2 million for his re-election. Stivers is only a two-termer, but he's already chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Neal has an uphill battle.

Next up will be McLeod-Skinner, a former Santa Clara City Council member. She is fending off several other Democrats in the May 15 primary election.

Six LGBT candidates have important runoff races May 22. Five of them are in Texas, where they each won the most votes in the first primary but not enough to win the nomination outright. Of those five, Ortiz Jones has the best odds of winning. She won 41 percent of the vote, while her nearest competitor (and May 22 opponent) won only 17 percent. Her latest report to the FEC showed almost $600,000 but in November, she'll be up against an incumbent Republican who has raised twice that. But she - and Minnesota's Craig - have also caught the attention and support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's efforts to win over Republican-held districts.

Two other LGBT Texas primary candidates May 22 are going into their runoffs having won the largest percentage of votes in the original primary. Burch won 49.6 percent of the vote and the endorsement of the Dallas Morning News.

Holguin came in second in his original Democratic primary, but the configuration of his district in Texas is in the unusual position of being challenged in an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court April 24. Plus, the incumbent Republican resigned April 6 due to a sex scandal. Lots can happen between April 24 and May 22 to affect that runoff.

The fifth Texas LGBT candidate is Partsch-Galvan, running as a Green Party member.

Also facing a primary opponent May 22 is Gray, the gay mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. Gray ran for the Senate seat held by Rand Paul (R) two years ago and lost by a significant margin. But he's probably the best known among the six Democrats on the May 22 primary ballot. If he wins, he'll face a Republican incumbent, Andy Barr, and the Cook Political Report predicts Gray could give Barr a "tough re-election race."

What all these candidates need is money. Some of them are getting small contributions from several LGBT political action committees. A very few, like Craig and Jones, are getting help from the Democratic Party.

Individual citizens from any state can contribute to these campaigns. For donations of $200 or more, the candidate must report the name, address, occupation, and employer of the individual contributor to the FEC.

Federal law limits how much any one person can give to any one candidate: $2,700 per primary and $2,700 per general election.

Individuals can also give $5,000 per year to a political action committee, and that committee can then give $5,000 per primary and $5,000 per general election to individual candidates.

If five or six newcomer LGBT congressional candidates win this fall, they will comprise the largest number of openly LGBT members of Congress in history. Currently, there are six such members in the House, all Democrats; but two of those, Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado and Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are running for other offices (Polis for governor and Sinema for the U.S. Senate). The newcomers, if successful, will join the existing four LGBT incumbents, who are all running for re-election and have strong chances of returning to office: David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Mark Takano of California.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles examining how LGBT candidates and organizations are positioned to help Democrats take back the majority of the U.S. House and Senate this year.


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