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LGBT Senate candidates face varying odds of victory

by Lisa Keen

Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema. Photo: Courtesy Sinema for Senate campaign
Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema. Photo: Courtesy Sinema for Senate campaign  

A historic number of openly LGBT people are running for the U.S. Senate this year: five. Two of those candidates are running in elections that are seen as the most competitive this year: Arizona and Wisconsin. And that competition is both good and concerning for LGBT candidates.

It's troubling news for the best known of the five candidates - lesbian incumbent Senator Tammy Baldwin (D). She is facing fierce opposition spending from billionaire conservatives who apparently see an opportunity in the fact that Republican President Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016. The state had voted for the Democratic presidential candidate for the seven previous presidential contests, and the Senate seat Baldwin holds has been held by a Democrat since 1957.

But a competitive race is good news for a second LGBT Senate candidate - bisexual Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema. She's a Democrat from Arizona who is hoping to win over a predominantly Republican state for a historically GOP seat. Arizona has voted for a Republican presidential candidate in nine out of the last 10 elections. And the last time a Democrat won a Senate seat from Arizona was 1988. Sinema was polling ahead of the Republican incumbent Jeff Flake even before he announced he would not run for re-election.

Two of the other LGBT Senate candidates this year are running for the same seat - a Senate seat for Delaware currently held by a pro-LGBT Democrat, Tom Carper. Carper's challenger for the Democratic nomination, Kerri Harris, is a lesbian military veteran and longtime community activist for people with low incomes. Carper's aspiring Republican primary opponent is a gay businessman and former executive at PayPal, Gene Truono.

The fifth candidate is Chelsea Manning, a trans woman best known for her conviction for leaking government documents via WikiLeaks. She is running in Maryland, against two-term straight ally Senator Benjamin Cardin (D).

Republicans currently hold the majority of seats in the Senate, 51. Democrats and independents, who caucus with Democrats, hold 49. For Democrats to take over the Senate, they need a net gain of two seats.

The promising newcomer
Sinema could have the best chance of capturing one new seat for Democrats. A moderate Democrat from Arizona, she was a longtime member of the state Legislature who developed some popularity even before winning her first term in the House of Representatives six years ago. She has a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps life story. For three years during her childhood, she and her family lived in an abandoned gas station. But she worked hard, was valedictorian of her high school, earned both a doctorate in social work and a law degree, served in the state House and Senate, and, in 2013, became the first openly bisexual candidate to be elected to Congress.

Sinema's political popularity is probably due in large part to her willingness to ignore party lines on issues critical to her constituents. The political analysis group said Sinema has voted "in line with" Trump's position 57.4 percent of the time. That compares with liberal Baldwin's 22.1 percent.

Several other election analysis sites (the Cook Political Report, CNN, Real Clear Politics, and others) say Arizona - which currently has two Republican senators (Flake and ailing John McCain) - is now a toss up. That's good for Sinema. But recent ABC polling shows an even rosier picture: Sinema beating any of the three Republicans seeking the GOP nomination.

While the other three fight it out until the August 28 primary, Sinema has a growing and healthy campaign war chest and can rise above it all. She's raised $6 million - more than twice the money raised by all three of the Republican candidates combined. But when the final stretch begins in September and the Arizona seat is on the line, Republicans and conservatives are likely to pour money into stopping Sinema.

Senator Tammy Baldwin. Photo: Courtesy Baldwin for Senate campaign  

The tough incumbent
Republicans and conservatives are already pouring money into an effort to defeat Baldwin in Wisconsin.

The chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party said conservative Republicans are "coming after Tammy Baldwin like no other" Senate candidate in this year's elections. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote that she's facing a "tough re-election," in large part because a "political network financed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch has spent more than $5 million" to oppose her re-election. (Federal Elections Commission records through March 31 put the number at $3 million.) CNN and Politico said Baldwin's seat is one of the 10 Senate seats most vulnerable to switching parties in November.

For almost a year, there has been big money being spent to push the state each way. Last July, a pro-Trump group directing messages to conservative blacks bought radio time for an ad that claims Baldwin's pro-choice position "is a big reason why" one in three abortions in America are sought against "black babies" and threatens the birth of the "next Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King."

Last October, the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a tax-exempt group headed by the right-wing Koch Industries, vowed to spend $1.6 million in television and digital ads against Baldwin, a first-term Democrat and the first openly LGBT person elected to the Senate. The group said Baldwin supports higher taxes and "a broken system rigged against ordinary Americans."

The Capital Times of Madison noted last month that Baldwin's "favorability" rating has dropped from 40 percent to 37 percent since last year.

As of April 4, the Americas PAC, a conservative political action committee based in Iowa, has spent $3,325,05 against Baldwin's re-election and for one of her Republican opponents, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

One of Baldwin's key Republican opponents is businessman Kevin Nicholson.

In February, several news organizations reported that Nicholson's parents and brother had contributed the maximum allowable to Baldwin's re-election. But his sister has been posting crude Twitter messages against Baldwin and others.

"Maybe you should stick to opioids, scandals, and lesbians," wrote sister Rebecca Steve, a resident of Texas. Nicholson has reportedly asked his sister to stop the Twitter posts on his behalf.

Despite the pummeling Baldwin has been taking, the Cook Political Report said the seat is "likely" to remain Democratic. Baldwin has raised $13 million in contributions and has benefited from another $1 million in outside spending for her. She also stands to benefit from having two Republican candidates go through a harsh primary battle to win the GOP nomination. And Baldwin has the incumbency advantage. The question is whether Wisconsin is moving into the red column or if the state's 2016 vote for Trump was an anomaly.

The long shots
Two LGBT candidates are vying to carry their party's mantle into the November election for Senate in Delaware: Truono, a Republican; and Harris, a Democrat. It will be a long, uphill battle for both.

Incumbent Carper has $1.2 million in his campaign coffers and, for the past two sessions of Congress, he's had a 100 percent pro-LGBT record, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Harris, who will face Carper in the primary, has an impressive record of service to her country and community but has raised only $23,000. She served in the Air Force, volunteered with numerous community service groups, including Habitat for Humanity, is a working mom, and co-founded a civil rights group.

Truono has raised only $57,000 and loaned himself $75,000. His original primary opponent had raised three times that amount but developed health issues and withdrew from the race. But that opponent has now thrown his support to a new Republican challenger, leaving Truono struggling.

Another long shot is Manning, who announced in January that she would challenge Cardin, who has scored a perfect 100 percent on HRC's Congressional Scorecard.

Just before leaving office, President Barack Obama commuted Manning's 35-year sentence, allowing for her release in May 2017. According to the Baltimore Sun, Manning is a native of Oklahoma who lived in Montgomery County, Maryland, for many years. She came back to Maryland after she was released from Fort Leavenworth prison last year.


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