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A 'rainbow wave' spreads across the U.S. as hundreds of LGBTQ candidates win elections

At least 400 LGBTQ candidates won their midterm races, breaking 2020’s record of 334, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
Photo Illustration: A collage of rainbow-colored "I VOTED" stickers
NBC News / Getty Images

A record number of LGBTQ candidates won their midterm races this year, creating what some advocates are calling yet another “rainbow wave.”

Many races are still too close or too early to call, but as of Thursday afternoon, at least 400 out LGBTQ candidates had won their elections, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which supports queer people running for office. That number surpasses 2020’s record of 336 and 2018’s record of 244.

At least 1,065 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people ran for office this year, with 678 of them making it to the general election, the LGBTQ Victory Institute, the research arm of the Victory Fund, reported. With at least 400 wins so far, queer candidates will have a midterm success rate of at least 58%.

Of the over 1,000 queer candidates who ran for office this year, 89% are Democrats, according to the Victory Fund. This reflects LGBTQ voters more broadly: 84% supported Democrats, while 15% supported Republicans, according to an NBC News Exit Poll released Tuesday evening.

Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said in a statement that the “rainbow wave” is a “clear rebuke to the increased homophobia and transphobia sweeping our communities.”

“Bigots tried their best to undermine our political power — but their hate backfired and motivated more LGBTQ people to run and win than ever before,” she said in a statement. “With so much at stake this election, from the future of marriage equality to abortion, LGBTQ candidates’ grit and exceptional grassroots support is paying off.”

National firsts

Queer candidates celebrated a number of notable victories and firsts across the country. Among the most notable is Maura Healey’s win in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race. Healey, a Democrat, is the first lesbian elected governor of a U.S. state. She follows two other openly LGBTQ Democrats elected to lead their states: Oregon’s Kate Brown, who could not seek re-election due to term limits, and Colorado’s Jared Polis, who was re-elected by a landslide Tuesday, NBC News projected.

During her victory speech, Healey spoke directly to “every little girl and every young LGBTQ person out there.”

“I hope tonight shows you that you can be whatever, whoever you want to be,” she said. “And nothing and no one can ever get in your way except your own imagination, and that’s not going to happen.”

Healey could be joined in her historic feat by Tina Kotek, a lesbian running for Oregon governor. As of Thursday afternoon, that race was too close to call, according to NBC News.

Several congressional candidates also made history as notable LGBTQ firsts. 

Becca Balint, the winner of an at-large House seat in Vermont, is the first woman and the first gay person elected to Congress from her state, and Eric Sorensen, the winner of Illinois’ 17th Congressional District, is the first gay person elected to Congress from his state, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

Robert Garcia, the winner of California’s 42nd Congressional District race, will be the first gay immigrant in Congress, while George Santos, the winner of New York’s 3rd Congressional District race, who went head to head with another gay candidate for the seat, is the first non-incumbent gay Republican elected to Congress and will be the only LGBTQ Republican in either chamber next term. 

There were several state and local races where candidates achieved notable national firsts. 

James Roesener of New Hampshire is the first transgender man elected to a state legislature in the U.S., according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. There are currently eight out trans people serving in state legislatures across the country, but none of them are trans men, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute.

In Connecticut, Democrat Erick Russell won his race for state treasurer, making him the first out Black LGBTQ person elected to a statewide office in the U.S., according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

State firsts

Many candidates also became the first LGBTQ representatives in their states.

Jennie Armstrong and Andrew Gray became the first LGBTQ people elected to Alaska’s Legislature. Alaska is one of four states with zero out LGBTQ state lawmakers, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute.

Christian Manuel-Hayes and Venton Jones of Texas and Corey Jackson of California became the first Black LGBTQ men elected to their states’ legislatures.

In Minnesota, Erin Maye Quade and Clare Oumou Verbeten became the first LGBTQ women and the first Black women elected to the state Senate.

Leigh Finke of Minnesota and Zooey Zephyr of Montana both became the first trans people elected to their states’ legislatures after winning state House seats. 

After her win, Finke said she was excited about the support that she and other LGBTQ candidates in the state received. 

“There’s been a really broad, supportive base of people who are looking to move forward and to protect trans kids and to protect communities that are vulnerable rather than accept division,” she told Minnesota Public Radio. “I’ll always be excited to remind people that Minnesota chooses love over hate.”

Throughout this heated midterm election cycle, several conservative groups launched inflammatory campaign ads targeting transgender rights. Gabriele Magni, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and director of the school’s LGBTQ Politics Research Initiative, said the results show that the ads failed to galvanize Republican voters as intended.

“They may have worked in the primaries to mobilize conservative voters and raise money around this ‘moral panic’ around trans issues, but it didn’t work very well in the general election — they didn’t win any moderate voters in swing districts,” Magni said. “If anything, they motivated more trans candidates or nonbinary, gender-nonconforming candidates to run for office, and now we have greater numbers of trans candidates in office.”

Re-elections and losses

Jared Polis, who in 2018 became the first gay man elected governor of a U.S. state, easily won re-election in Colorado, NBC News projected. Polis, a Democrat, defeated his Republican challenger, Heidi Ganahl, 57% to 40.8%, with 85% of the expected vote in as of Thursday afternoon. 

All nine currently serving LGBTQ members of the House of Representatives ran for re-election this year, and seven of them were successful, NBC News projected: Sharice Davids of Kansas, Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Angie Craig of Minnesota, Ritchie Torres of New York, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Mark Takano of California. Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney and Mondaire Jones, both of New York, lost their re-election bids.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were still two gay and lesbian House candidates whose races had not yet been called by NBC News: Will Rollins of California and Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Oregon. 

Regardless of the outcomes of these races, however, Congress is already poised to have the most out LGBTQ members ever next year: at least 13, two more than the current 11 (the two out LGBTQ senators — Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. — aren’t up for re-election until 2024). 

And, if Kotek joins Healey and Polis, the U.S. could have more LGBTQ governors than ever before.

Magni said the results prove that LGBTQ candidates can successfully compete in both blue and red states.

“This is a powerful message, saying, ‘Hey, LGBTQ candidates can win elections and can win elections in many states and many districts across the country.’” he said. “All of the concerns that we hear about electability, whether these candidates can deliver for their party, are not really based in reality.”

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