Even though Barack Obama captured 70% of the gay vote in 2008, he ran behind the share John Kerry won in 2004. At least according to CNN exit polls, 77% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans preferred the 2004 Democratic nominee to George W. Bush (who had that year signaled his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment).
Still, 70% of the gay vote is nothing to sneeze at. With promises to repeal Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) while including gays in federal hate crimes protections and enacting the Employment Non-Discrimination ACT (ENDA), Obama rode a wave of hope that, once elected, he would sign legislation designed to bring positive change for gay Americans.
Yet once in office, he failed to deliver, save on signing a more comprehensive hate crimes bill which includes sexual orientation among the groups previously covered.
On the other matters, save DADT repeal, Congress hasn’t even scheduled a vote. And while the House voted last May to repeal the Clinton-era law barring gays from serving openly in the military, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid failed to follow suit right away. When he finally got around to scheduling a vote in September (as fall campaigns were well underway), he did so in such a ham-handed manner that he put a Republican supporter of repeal in the “awkward position of voting against moving forward on legislation that I supported and that contained a change in policy I advocated.”
Writing the above quote in the Washington Post, DADT opponent Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) faulted the Nevada Democrat for using “procedural tactics” to “prevent Republican amendments.” She wasn’t alone. Her Massachusetts colleague Scott Brown also decried Reid’s tactics. Jarrod Chlapowski, field director for Servicemembers United, a group opposed to DADT, derided Reid’s legislative tactics as “cynical” and called them “a recipe for failure.”
With the Senate Democratic leadership failing to develop a workable strategy for repeal of an unpopular law (according to Gallup, 70% of Americans, including 53% of conservatives, “favor allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military”), and with the Democratic leadership of both houses failing to act on other initiatives important to gay activists, it’s no wonder the Associated Press finds “gay voters are angry — at the lack of progress on issues from eliminating employment discrimination to uncertainty over serving in the military to the economy — [with] some … choosing to sit out this election or look for other candidates.”
If these reliably Democratic voters choose to sit out the election, it could mean Democratic losses in tight races, including the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, where many members of the gay rights outfit Equality Illinois told volunteers phone banking on behalf of the organization that they “won’t vote or will vote against incumbents, regardless of their party affiliation or stance on gay issues.”
And while such gay organizations as Equality Illinois and its counterparts in other states across the nation, as well as the national organization, the Human Rights Campaign, have been pushing hard for Democratic candidates, many gay voters, as Equality Illinois’s volunteers have found, are not very enthusiastic about supporting the Democrats.
There seems to be a divide between the gay organizations, which many gay people believe have become little more than mouthpieces for the Democratic Party, and the gay “grassroots.” While gay conservatives have long been critical of these organizations, gays on the left are becoming increasingly critical — or at least the rise of blogs has made it easier for disgruntled gay liberals to get their message across.
Left-of-center lesbian blogress Pam Spaulding takes the groups to task for failing to take a hard line with the administration. She says that Brian Bond, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and former executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, “muzzled” gay groups from discussing the “DADT legal cases” at a recent White House meeting. She added in an email to me: “It’s terribly hard to see how there’s any leverage these people [gay groups] have. Honestly, when are they going to step away from [White House Deputy Chief of Staff] Jim Messina and [White House senior advisor] Valerie Jarrett and say, ‘No deal — you made your promises, now march up to the Hill and deal.’”
And this failure to deal may well cost the Democrats some votes on the gay left.
Longtime gay activist and San Francisco-based blogger Michael Petrelis told me in an email that he’ll actually be voting Republican for Congress, opting for GOP candidate John Dennis over Nancy Pelosi. He says he’ll be doing as he’s “always done … voting my conscience.” While he will be voting for two Democrats, he says he’s “proud” never to have
been a “battered gay Democratic Party voter” who gets bashed or ignored by that party, which in my adult life has never delivered much on gay issues, other than to say, “the GOP is worse.” I will not now become such a voter. Democracy is too important to waste a vote on Democratic Party candidates I don’t believe in.
Now, to be sure, Petrelis has never toed the Democratic line, but other gay bloggers who worked hard to elect Barack Obama two short years ago aren’t showing as much enthusiasm for his fellow Democrats in this year’s congressional elections as they did for him in the presidential contest. While some will make it to the polls and vote for the Democratic candidate either out of party loyalty or animus against the Republican opposition, others just won’t feel voting is worth the effort this time around.
In close races like Illinois — and maybe even California — they could make the difference.
Should gay Democrats make up a lower share of the electorate than they have in years past, then perhaps Democrats should reconsider their strategy of avoiding gay issues out of fear they might offend swing voters.