Clay Cope is the Republican candidate for Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District. He is running against incumbent Democrat Elizabeth Etsy in a state where the two senators, five representatives and governor are all Democrats. And if he wins, Cope would become the first out, non-incumbent Republican elected to Congress.
In contrast to the ostentatious public persona of the GOP's presidential nominee, Cope describes himself as someone “with flaws.” He said he prefers to listen rather than talk. He has a background in fashion. He’s nerdy -- in good way. In fact, when he talked about his start in local politics in Sherman, Connecticut, he effused, “I loved my five years on planning and zoning.” He talked in detail about renovating a library.
And Cope supports Donald Trump. “I used to say ABC -- anybody but Clinton -- but now I say vote for Trump,” he told NBC OUT.
Cope’s support for Trump may seem surprising at a time when the Republican Party is in flux, and there is ample room (and motivation) for down-ballot Republicans to distance themselves from the presidential candidate. Prominent Republicans have declined to endorse Trump, and real ideological schisms have emerged around many social issues, including LGBTQ rights. The Log Cabin Republicans called the 2016 GOP platform “the most anti-LGBT platform in the Party’s 162-year history.”
But Cope sees the Republican Party is a big tent. “I am a lifelong Republican ... The first election I voted in was for Ronald Reagan when I was 18," he explained. “The tent has widened, and now there are gay candidates and that’s great.”
What holds up a tent so large both Trump and Cope fit under it?
Like Trump, Cope’s journey into politics begins in the business sector. “My former partner and I had a business in Dallas, Texas and designed women’s clothing. We built a successful business together we had offices around the country.”
In 1995, Clay and his partner moved to New York City. “I am a Texan,” he said, “it was a big change.” After moving the business to QVC, Cope took up full time residence in Sherman, Connecticut. He was noticed by local Republicans and asked to run for the Planning and Zoning Commission.
In 2011, he was approached to run for first selectman, another word for mayor. Now in his third term, he said what makes him successful is “customer service.” “You are all about customer service. That is your job. You have to be present, open. That was drilled in me at an early age, in the wholesaling, retailing world. If [the customer] has a problem you have to solve it.”
Cope is running as a challenger, and, like Trump, casts himself as somewhat of a political outsider. He compares what he calls the “Malloy Connecticut regime” to the “Obama regime.” “I see Obama-Malloy-Clinton-Etsy as part of the same problem.” In particular, Cope criticizes what he calls the Governor’s “out of control spending.”
With state politics dominated by incumbent Democrats, Cope sums up the appeal of Trump to his constituents in one word: anti-establishment. Both Trump and Sanders won the primary in his district, and for Cope this signals his constituents are looking for something different.
To explain the appeal of Trump’s politics, he described his first experience at a Trump rally in Fairfield, Connecticut. “It was packed to the gills,” he recalled. Despite summer heat, a crowd of more than 4,000 (according to Cope) were “willing to wait in line for a very long time to see this man. It was something to behold.”
The issue drawing so much support is the economy, according to Cope. “They want a better, stronger economy,” he said of the rally-goers. “He is preaching to the right crowd … Malloy raised taxes because he increased spending—two times. If I did that, I would not be the sitting first selectman in Sherman, Connecticut. What I understand from the Clinton campaign is that she will raise spending by a trillion dollars as president and [because of that I] cannot vote for Clinton.”
In anticipation of the criticism of Trump rallies that they are racist, homophobic and often violent events, Cope said: “What I saw was people helping people.”
Cope resolves what appears to be a contradiction in the GOP’s approach to issues of sexuality and gender by focusing on “anti-discrimination” rather than questions of identity. This flows from his own “very welcoming ”experience of being gay in the GOP. “I never had anyone question me about my sexuality, about my relationship with my partner,” he said.
When asked about the apparent unwelcoming content of the 2016 GOP platform, he said: “I don’t think the party is the platform. Voters vote for candidates not a party platform. I don’t agree with every aspect of the platform, but I am focused on issues.”
He quotes Peter Thiel’s RNC speech where Thiel capped a declaration of his gay pride with the declaration: “[M]ost of all, I am proud to be an American.” Belonging to a marginalized sexual identity is trumped by belonging to the nation. “We are not talking about lifestyle here,” Cope added.
When it comes to the role of identity in public office, “I never think about it. Did I have gay cereal this morning? No. The decisions I make are always what I think is the best for my constituents. I am liking what I’m hearing from Pence. He does not believe in discrimination. And neither do I.”
Pence will strike most readers as an odd referent for anti-discrimination, because as Governor of Indiana, Pence initially signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that permitted businesses to refuse service on basis of customers’ sexual orientation. But there was no contradiction for Cope: “I take him at his word. I have to think about what he is saying now.”
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Cope hasn’t thought much about potentially making GOP history. “It’s such a non-issue for me,” he said. “I know I am unique. I am a gay American. A Republican. I live with a Peruvian immigrant. We are blessed to live in a community and district that embraces us.”
Regardless of whether Cope makes history in November for his identity, the future of the Republican Party likely includes more out LGBTQ officer holders who have a clear vision for the GOP and see no contradictions between marginalized identities and conservative politics.
“[I want to] raise awareness about the party that I know and that I love. The Republican Party is a party of inclusion and non-discrimination -- or I wouldn’t be part of it.”
Julie Moreau is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She tweets at @JEMoreau.