Misty Snow’s Senate campaign is history-making on several levels. The 31-year-old Utah native is one of two transgender women running for federal office this year—the first two trans candidates to ever receive major party nominations. That fact alone cements Snow’s place in the history books, but it’s the way her campaign is being run that’s even more unusual.
Like many of this cycle’s 100-plus LGBTQ candidates, Snow isn’t running on an emphatically LGBTQ platform. In fact, she hasn’t received endorsements from nearly any of the major political action committees that help drive fundraising for most LGBTQ candidates. Snow’s platform—a progressive bundle focused on Wall Street reform, legalizing marijuana and getting “money out of politics”—has led to a slew of endorsements from organizations formed to rally for Bernie Sanders. And her few PAC endorsements include a fund that aims to promote atheist political candidates.
Snow’s chance of taking Republican incumbent Mike Lee’s Senate seat are negligible—Five Thirty Eight projects her chances of winning at 0.1 percent—but the platform-based way her campaign is run, with barely a nod to her LGBTQ status, is an illustration of the new era in which openly LGBTQ candidates run for elected office.
NBC OUT spoke with leaders from three of the nation’s most prominent LGBTQ political action groups in order to gauge some of the prominent trends among this year’s crop of viable LGBTQ candidates for federal, state, and local office. The themes linking candidates together show historic breakthroughs in the way LGBTQ candidates run, the way they are perceived by voters, and the way opposition campaigns run against them.
The sheer numbers are impressive: the Victory Fund has endorsed 135 openly LGBTQ candidates this cycle, LPAC has 14 lesbian, bisexual and queer women on its endorsement roster and Log Cabin Republicans saw the number of primary candidates jump from three to six since 2014. Even more, LGBTQ people are running for office without endorsements from any of the three groups. What’s most impactful is the fact that at least 17 of the openly LGBTQ candidates are running for office at the federal level—with six incumbents already in Congress.
After 2016, it seems, politics will never be the same for the LGBTQ community.
Candidates 'Not Running Solely on the Basis of Being LGBTQ'
“Candidates are not running solely on the basis of being LGBTQ,” said Beth Shipp, executive director of LPAC, the political action fund created to support queer and trans women in politics. “They are running and seeking support of PACS and other orgs that align most with what their platform is.”
Shipp told NBC OUT that in her previous 10-year tenure as Political Director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, it was tough for voters to see “the depth” of women candidates who were openly LGBTQ. Now, those candidates are drawing in voters who largely just don’t care all that much about whether a congressional candidate, for example, might happen to be a lesbian—as long as her platform speaks to them.
“Now, you have someone like Angie Craig who doesn’t make a secret of the fact that she’s a lesbian,” Shipp said, referring to the Minnesota Democrat who polls have shown leading the race for a newly-open seat in Congress, “But when you talk to her about district issues it’s about climate or social security or women’s reproductive rights. It’s about subjects that aren’t specifically tied to LGBT candidates.”
This year’s history-making Democratic transgender candidates (both young first-timers named Misty; Colorado’s Misty Plowright joins Snow in challenging a conservative Republican) are notable for skirting the endorsements of major LGBTQ PACs. While both Plowright and Snow are endorsed by Equality PAC, most of their endorsements came from “Berniecrat” progressive groups that align with the candidates’ campaign finance reform platforms.
Attacking LGBTQ Community 'No Longer a Winning Electoral Strategy'
When asked about the differences between 2016 and federal elections past, most of the experts NBC OUT spoke with remarked on the way conservative opposition campaigns have been transformed by increasing public acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
“Attacking the LGBTQ community is no longer a winning electoral strategy,” said Martine Apodaca, Vice President of Political Operations & Communications for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the nation’s largest and oldest LGBTQ political action committee. “People don’t hold those discriminatory views anymore. It’s a different world from 2004, when the GOP was adding anti-gay marriage amendments to drive voter turnout.”
Conservative rhetoric has shifted to keep up with increasing acceptance, legal same-sex marriage and other developments that make attacking the LGBTQ community outright a losing game. That means openly queer and trans candidates now face opposition attacks that are largely focused on their platforms—and that’s one less obstacle to getting elected.
When Angie Craig, who is endorsed by both Victory Fund and LPAC, was attacked in a September Facebook post by a Minnesota GOP communications chair in which the chair referred to Craig’s wife as a “female marriage partner” alongside ominously insinuated homophobia, the public outcry was swift.
“The attacks that we have seen have quickly been shot down by community members, which also says something about how far we have come in the mainstream of politics,” Shipp told NBC OUT. She noted that the general lack of homophobic and transphobic vitriol during campaigns has been “surprising,” given what she called a “free pass to all of the hatred and bigotry” that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appears to have inspired among his supporters.
In fact, Trump himself—running a contentiously conservative campaign with a running mate whose reputation for active opposition to LGBTQ rights is storied and flagrant—has spent a portion of his campaign effort attempting to court the LGBTQ community in a manner that had led a surreal quality to the election. Holding up a rainbow flag onstage in October and claiming to be beloved by the community in June’s famous “ask the gays” interview, Trump has held the unique position of being the first Republican presidential nominee to actively court the lavender vote.
Transgender Political Ceiling Being Shattered
This year wasn’t the first time transgender Americans ran for political office, but it was the first year they won primaries for the Democratic party in majorly contested state races. While neither of “the Mistys” are considered frontrunners, both have received outsized national press coverage relative to the size of their campaigns. And perhaps most importantly, both are running in conservative districts in states that swing either fiercely red (Snow’s Utah) or mostly red in terms of state and local elections (Plowright’s Colorado).
Both Snow’s and Plowright’s campaigns push the envelope in every way imaginable, with highly progressive, liberal platforms, conservative opponents, little backing in terms of PACs and the odds stacked against them in terms of the electorate. What this means, however, is that both candidates are shattering the transgender political ceiling with about as much dynamite as one election cycle can muster.
Between the two high-profile trans candidates and this year’s historic transgender participation level at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), where Human Rights Campaign Press Secretary Sarah McBride became the first transgender speaker on a DNC stage, there’s an indisputable sea change occurring for trans people in politics. It would hardly be surprising, after Snow and Plowright, to see a scattering of viable transgender candidates running competitive, viable campaigns in strong blue districts and urban areas over the next few election cycles.
Candidates Challenging Anti-LGBTQ incumbents
Not only is blatant homophobia now considered a losing strategy among most Republican candidates, but politicians are also receiving severe backlash for engaging in anti-LGBTQ policy and legislative decisions. This cycle, some of the most notoriously anti-LGBTQ elected officials risk being unseated by their unpopular opinions—and sometimes, directly by LGBTQ candidates challenging them at the polls.
Two primary examples of the trend are taking place in North Carolina and Florida, states that emerged as major battlegrounds for LGBTQ rights in 2016 due to the Orlando mass shooting at a gay bar and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s passage of a nationally condemned anti-LGBTQ law. In North Carolina, lesbian retired Naval officer Jane Campbell is going up against one of the conservative politicians who helped draft and sponsor H.B. 2, the contentious law that resulted in hundreds of boycotts against North Carolina. Campbell’s run for the statehouse comes during an advantageous time for shifting state politics; although the state’s Charlotte Observer newspaper had endorsed McCrory in every run since 1992, the paper declined to back McCrory this year—but did endorse Campbell for state representative.
Florida statehouse candidate Beth Tuura also entered the race on a hotly contemporary platform: Tuura is running for the district in which the Pulse nightclub was located, and her backing includes support from anti-gun violence groups. While she’s challenging a popular Republican incumbent, the race is said to be tight—and if Tuura wins, she’s poised to help transform a state legislature that’s leaned red for some time. And she’s not alone: openly LGBTQ Jennifer Webb, Ken Keechl and Carlos Guillermo Smith are all vying for state seats as well.
“We have the opportunity to quintuple the amount of openly LGBTQ officials in the Florida statehouse,” the Victory Fund’s Apodaca told NBC OUT. “If the challengers we are supporting win on election night, the number goes from one to five.”
LGBTQ Candidates Are Competing in Red States—and in GOP
No analysis of trends among LGBTQ candidates would be complete without recognition of the few Republicans among them. This year, there are more viable LGBTQ Republicans than ever before. Gregory Angelo, Executive Director of gay conservative group Log Cabin Republicans, told NBC OUT that the PAC’s endorsements have gone up—and the emerging gay GOP candidates are trending younger as well.
“In 2014 there were three openly gay Republicans competing in viable races for the House, this year we had six,” Angelo said. “We doubled our numbers in that regard from just two years ago. Even though only two emerged victorious [in the primaries], they are two really unique candidates.”
The two Log Cabin-endorsed gay Republicans that made it through primaries this year are Connecticut’s Clay Cope and Arizona’s Paul Babeu. Log Cabin’s national umbrella group only endorses candidates at the federal level, but Angelo said that there’s a low number of LGBTQ Republicans running at the state and local level this year. Still, among the candidates that didn’t make it through their respective GOP primaries, most are on the young side—which Angelo said could point to a future increase.
“If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that people like Jacquie Atkinson, Chrys Kefalas and Ben West most definitely have a bright political future,” Angelo added. "I’m sure we’ll be hearing from them again.”
Republicans aside, LGBTQ candidates running on Democratic tickets are taking on red states like never before. Victory Fund alone has 20 endorsed candidates running for seats in the South: Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Texas all see multiple openly LGBTQ candidates vying for office. In other red states, candidates are poised to break major barriers—like Denise Juneau, whose jump from Montana’s education czar to congresswoman would make her the first out lesbian congresswoman for her state as well as the first Native American woman in Congress.
As with the other LGBTQ candidates this year, LPAC’s Shipp notes that Juneau’s campaign strategy has centered more on her platform issues—things like reforestation efforts and tax credits for childcare—than on her sexual orientation. The focus on platform extends to LGBTQ political support groups as well: LPAC, Victory Fund and Log Cabin Republicans all adhere to strict platform-based criteria for their endorsements. It’s a strategy that leads to a standard of viability for LGBTQ candidates, but it also means there are more LGBTQ people running for office than any one group can list.
As lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people run successful campaigns for elected office, the next frontier is clear. When will we see an openly LGBTQ president? Shipp had a very specific response to the question.
“I think initially it would be a ‘novelty,’ but I don’t see it outside of the realm of possibility in the next few years,” Shipp told NBC OUT. “When Hillary was looking at her picks for Vice President, [openly lesbian Senator] Tammy Baldwin was on that list. And I don’t think anyone could say that Tammy Baldwin isn’t qualified to be president.”