A historic number of LGBTQ candidates will appear on ballots across the country in November. At least 1,095 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have run or are still running for office at all levels this year, up from 1,006 in 2020, according to data from the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
In New York, two gay candidates — Democrat Robert Zimmerman and Republican George Santos — are running to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Tom Suozzi in New York’s 3rd Congressional District. This will be the first time in U.S. history that two out LGBTQ congressional candidates are going head to head in a general election.
President Joe Biden took the district by 10 points in 2020, but the race is considered competitive, though Democratic-leaning, by the Cook Political Report. It is one of 16 competitive races in which LGBTQ candidates appear, and which may decide control of the U.S. House, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
Though this race guaranteed to result in a win for a gay candidate, the outcome of the election will help determine whether Democrats hang on to their slim majority in the House.
'It was going to happen sooner of later'
The odds of a faceoff between two gay candidates have gone up in recent years, because there’s been an increase in LGBTQ candidates at all levels of government.
“It was going to happen sooner or later,” said Donald Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and the author of “Out and Running: Gay and Lesbian Candidates, Elections and Policy Representation.” “The question was always finding an LGBTQ Republican who can get support in a primary.”
Historically, there have been relatively few Republican LGBTQ candidates, though he said that Republican organizations like the Log Cabin Republicans have existed for a long time.
There are currently 11 openly LGBTQ people in Congress — two in the Senate and nine in the House — and they are all Democrats.
Santos, who is hoping to flip the district red for his party, secured his party’s nomination in August for the second time. He ran against Suozzi in 2020 but lost in a general election.
Santos is the only openly LGBTQ Republican running for Congress this fall, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. If elected, he would be the first openly LGBTQ nonincumbent Republican elected to Congress. Two former GOP members of the House — Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin and Jim Kolbe of Arizona — won re-election as incumbents after coming out (or, in Gunderson’s case, being outed).
Santos said the historic nature of the race is “pretty incredible.”
“I think it shows that our country continues to be the bastion of progress and building equity for everybody,” he told NBC News.
Zimmerman said it would be “profoundly meaningful” to be the first LGBTQ member of Congress from Long Island and Queens.
“When I was a kid, you’d have never imagined a member of the LGBTQ community as a member of Congress,” he said. “I never dreamed that would be possible.”
'We are very different'
While Santos and Zimmerman agree that their election is historic, that’s about all the two men agree on.
“Although we might share a sexual orientation … we are very different,” Santos said. “Robert Zimmerman aligns himself with the party that brought about the crisis of inflation.”
Santos emphasized the climbing costs of energy for some of his constituents. He also said he is also running to fight against “one party control in New York” that does not allow for “diverging opinions” on how to address the rising cost of living in his district, though he said he is prepared to work with his Democratic colleagues to find solutions.
“We need to work with the people who disagree with us,” Santos said. “I will represent the people who didn’t vote for me as much as the people who did.”
Zimmerman slammed Santos for his support of former President Donald Trump, who he said advocated a “homophobic, bigoted,” agenda.
“I’m not running against any Republican. I’m running against a Republican that is part of the radical fringe. He is a MAGA candidate,” Zimmerman said, using the acronym for Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Zimmerman said Santos’ support for Trump extends to participation in the Jan. 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C.
“He defended the insurrectionists,” Zimmerman said.
In a February 2021 interview with Lara Trump, Santos said, “I was at the Ellipse on Jan. 6. That was the most amazing crowd, and the president was at his full awesomeness that day. It was a front-row spectacle for me.” The Ellipse, a 52-acre park south of the White House, was the location of the rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol building.
Santos denied participating in any insurrectionist activities.
“I was never on Capitol grounds on Jan 6. That is a lie,” he said. “I came out very early to say it was a dark, dark day in our country and we needed a lot of healing after that.”
When asked if he continues to support the former president, Santos said, “Donald Trump is not on the ballot.” He then criticized Zimmerman for focusing on the former president.
“I’m making this race about New York District 3 and the residents of New York, while Zimmerman is making this about Trump,” Santos said.
Bringing up Trump and Jan. 6 may be a good move for Zimmerman, as it may help increase turnout among Democratic voters: According to a recent NBC News poll, “threats to democracy” now beats cost of living as the top issue facing the country among voters.
“I think voters get it. I think people underestimate just how concerned voters are about having a democracy going forward,” Zimmerman said.
He also harshly criticized the Republican-sponsored anti-LGBTQ bills in the statehouses.
“I’ve been approached by so many parents of gay kids,” Zimmerman said. “The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills have a chilling effect well beyond the borders of Florida,” he added, referring to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which limits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. That measure is one of more than 340 anti-LGBTQ bills Republican legislators have introduced this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
Many of these bills specifically target transgender people, limiting trans people’s ability to play sports, use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity and receive gender-affirming health care.
“The Republican Party has made attacking LGBTQ people, especially trans kids, a part of their platform this year,” said Albert Fujii, press secretary for the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “It is central to their philosophy on governing. That’s too bad.”
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which is dedicated to supporting and electing LGBTQ people to public office, has endorsed Zimmerman in the race.
Santos said he sees no contradiction between his identity and his party’s politics.
“As a lifelong Republican, I have never experienced discrimination in the Republican Party,” he said. “I am an openly gay candidate. I am not shy.”
Abortion is another issue Zimmerman is pushing ahead of November. Zimmerman, who supports abortion rights, said the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is a major issue for voters in his district.
“I saw in my primary — and it really was triggered by the reversal of Roe — an energy and activism and engagement that wasn’t there before,” he said. “It was a call to action for Democrats.”
According to last month’s NBC News poll, 58% of voters disapproved of the Supreme Court’s decision, versus 38% who approved.
This week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., unveiled federal legislation that, if passed, would ban abortion after 15 weeks. It’s unclear whether Graham will find much party support because the issue is likely to hurt them in competitive districts like New York’s 3rd.
In a September 2020 interview with The Island Now, a New York news website, Santos said, “I will vote to support the ban of abortion in the United States.” However, he told NBC News that he would “never advocate for a full ban.”
“There is not a scenario on earth where I would advocate for a full ban. The women in New York District 3 should not worry,” he said.
The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, also contained a memo by Justice Clarence Thomas arguing the Supreme Court should reconsider its 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
“The Dobbs decision was a direct message to the LGBTQ community that ‘you are next up,’ and they are coming for us,” Zimmerman said.
As a result, House Democrats introduced the Respect for Marriage Act that seeks to codify same-sex marriage in federal legislation. The bill passed the Democrat-controlled House, but it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where it needs at least 10 Republican votes to pass.
This week, Senate leaders decided to delay a vote on the bill until after the midterm elections.
Santos, who is married, said he supports codifying same-sex marriage in law but would not support a bill that forced religious institutions to contravene their beliefs.
“I am not for the state overstepping the church,” he said.
Forty-seven Republicans voted for the Respect for Marriage Act in the House, and Santos said “that shows that the Republican party is far from homophobic.”
With so many contentious issues at play, neither candidate expects sexual identity to be a deciding factor in November.
“The issue is not that both of us are gay,” Zimmerman said. “It’s what’s at stake nationally.”
CORRECTION (Sept. 22, 2022, 9:15 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of the person who interviewed Santos in February 2021. She is Lara Trump, not Laura.