Georgia politicians resorting to gay-baiting in their campaigns sometimes seems as seasonal as the Dogwood blossom, and after being in full bloom during the Republican primary for governor, anti-gay tactics may not return for this fall’s general election.
“I don’t perceive [gay issues] as being an issue in this race, moving forward,” said Brian Robinson, spokesperson for former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who won the Aug. 10 Republican runoff after running weeks of television commercials attacking former Secretary of State Karen Handel for supporting gay rights when she ran for Fulton County Commission in 2002 and 2003.
“We were in a very hard-fought campaign [against Handel], and we just, we had to fight,” Robinson told the Georgia Voice. “We were focused on talking to Republican voters in the Republican primary, and we were focused on communicating a message that Nathan Deal is the true conservative, and he has been unwavering in his principles.”
Although Robinson doesn’t expect gay rights to become an issue in the general election against Democratic nominee former Gov. Roy Barnes, he reiterated Deal’s opposition.
Top photo: Just days before the Aug. 10 Republican runoff, gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal released a campaign commercial titled ‘Straw.’ The 30-second spot featured text over a field of wheat and ominous clouds. “The last straw. For some, it’s Karen Handel’s support for taxpayer-funded gay partner benefits,” a male voice intoned. “For others, the last straw is Karen Handel’s vote to give our tax dollars to Youth Pride, a group that promotes homosexuality among teenagers as young as 13.” The commercial has now been removed from Deal’s YouTube. (Screen capture via YouTube)
Bottom photo: The gay-baiting in Georgia’s Aug. 10 Republican gubernatorial runoff was so over-the-top that it garnered attention from ‘Daily Show’ host Jon Stewart, who mocked the race on his show on Aug. 12. ‘How does Sarah Palin lose a proxy war? She’s a grizzly bear! What do they have in Georgia that can kick a grizzly bear’s ass?’ Stewart said, noting Palin’s endorsement of Karen Handel. Then he showed a clip of an anti-gay Deal ad. ‘Oh, the gay monster. That’s what beats the grizzly bear.’ (Photo via TheDailyShow.com)
“He would not support gay adoptions, he would not support taxpayer-funded domestic partner benefits, and he would definitely fight to uphold Georgia’s constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man, one woman,” Robinson said.
Gay issues in the general election
Political analysts believe that both Deal and Barnes will avoid gay issues leading up to the Nov. 2 general election.
“There were no major political gains that the LGBT community made when he was governor that could be turned around and used against him,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of the gay rights group Georgia Equality.
In 2000, Barnes became the first sitting Georgia governor to address a gay rights group when he spoke to the Atlanta Executive Network. He also signed the state’s first hate crime law, but it did include specific categories and was eventually struck down as too vague.
Asked about Barnes’ position on gay issues and whether he thinks they will be a factor in the general election, the Barnes campaign sent the Georgia Voice a written statement from campaign manager Chris Carpenter:
“Unlike the other team who has used out-of-state endorsements and sideline issues to divide voters, Roy is an experienced leader who is focused on making Georgia work again by addressing the serious issues facing all Georgians including jobs, education and transportation.”
After controversy over the state flag hampered his re-election bid in 2002, Barnes is expected to be careful not to be overwhelmed by another wedge issue. However, he cannot risk alienating gay voters, since his victory in a red state depends on massive Democratic turnout.
“They’re going to ask about gay marriage and he’s going to say I’m opposed to it, and given the polling in this state, he would probably be hurting himself if he said otherwise,” said Matt Towery, CEO of the Republican polling firm Insider Advantage.
“But at the same time, he can’t afford to offend the gay community as large as it is in this city, and really in this state, and so he’s going to have to walk that line carefully,” Towery said. “I don’t think he can go so far as to completely offend the gay and lesbian community because if he does they’re not going to turn out to vote for him, and he needs turnout.”
Even if Deal does not play the anti-gay card to energize conservative voters in November, Graham hopes his zealous campaigning in the Republican primary mobilizes gay and lesbian Georgians.
“I hope that the community will very much remember that Nathan Deal went far to the right and took extreme positions in the primary,” Graham said. “He distorted not only Karen Handel’s record, but really distorted the contributions of the LGBT community.”
Handel done in by gay-baiting?
While Deal had some success using Handel’s gay-friendly past to cast her as a closeted liberal, the GOP primary also exposed the limits of going anti-gay, and once again hinted that it may not be as effective a campaign tool as conventional wisdom suggests.
Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine started 2010 with a 14-point lead in the polls, and as late as the second week of July led the Republican primary field by nine points. Like Deal, Oxendine spent the closing weeks of the primary campaign attacking Handel in television commercials due to the gay-friendly posture she took in earlier races.
In the weeks leading up to the July 20 vote, Oxendine collapsed in the polls and wound up finishing fourth in the primary, which Handel won by 14 percentage points, largely thanks to an endorsement from Sarah Palin.
“She not only survived [the anti-gay attacks], she thrived,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, who along with several other political experts believes that the anti-gay “Last Straw” television ads that Deal ran during the runoff were a negligible factor in him overtaking Handel.
“It probably had some effect, but Karen Handel’s critical mistake was during the primary, when there was no way she was going to get a majority of the vote needed to avoid a runoff,” Bullock said. “Usually under those kinds of circumstances, you, as a candidate, do not attack all of your opponents, because you figure there are going to be some people whose supporters you’re going to want to appeal to in the runoff. She lumped her three major opponents together as essentially three crooks, and I think that made it very difficult for her to reach out and bring in their supporters.”
Handel’s blunt campaign style also isolated her from political peers in her own backyard, as Towery noted that every Republican elected official in north Fulton County endorsed Deal.
“I think it flipped her from getting 75 percent [of the vote] in north Fulton to 60 percent, and that basically was the difference,” Towery said.
Towery said that he was perplexed by Deal’s decision to focus his campaign ads on Handel’s gay-friendly past, although he believes the ads helped Deal solidify support in more conservative areas of the state.
“I did not understand his strategy to be honest with you,” Towery said. “He started talking about abortion and gay marriage and all of these things that normally, the typical Republican voter in a normal turnout, they just don’t care about those things that much anymore.
“Because the turnout was so much heavier in the northern sections of the state, where those issues are still important, I think [his ads] had an effect,” Towery added. “But if you have a normal Republican turnout, you have a more moderate voter than most people think, because a lot of people who identify as independent when we poll them, they vote Republican now whereas they might have voted Democrat 15 or 20 years ago.”
Bashing without success
Deal’s victory over Handel was a rarity in that many Georgia politicians have staked their campaigns on gay-baiting and lost.
Similar to Handel, Republican Mitch Skandalakis went from courting gay voters while he was running for Fulton County Commission chair, to being vehemently opposed to gay rights when he ran for statewide office in 1998.
With former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed serving as his campaign manager in the lieutenant governor’s race, Skandalakis attacked Democrat Mark Taylor in a vicious television ad that appealed to racial bias, cast Taylor as shambling around a drug rehab clinic, and said he was “solidly endorsed by [a] homosexual newspaper.” Taylor won the race.
Two Republican sponsors of Georgia’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage attempted to parlay their anti-gay efforts into higher office. Former state Sen. Mike Crotts’s leadership in passing the marriage amendment was a centerpiece of his 2004 run for Georgia’s eighth congressional district, where he came in a distant third place in the Republican primary and captured only 11 percent of the vote.
In that same election, then-Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears fended off a challenge from a Christian Coalition of Georgia-backed candidate who attempted to portray Sears as a gay-friendly activist judge because she was part of the six-justice majority that struck down the state’s anti-sodomy law in 1998. Sears defeated the candidate, Grant Brantley, by a 62-38 percent margin in the non-partisan election to become the first black female chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.
In 2006, former state Sen. Bill Stephens touted his sponsorship of the marriage amendment in his bid for the Republican nomination for secretary of state. Pitted against Handel, Stephens also tried to use Handel’s past support of domestic partner benefits against her.
Handel’s denial that she ever supported gay rights became somewhat farcical as she tried to discredit the gay newspaper articles that chronicled her Fulton County commission campaign, while simultaneously using articles from the same gay newspaper to tarnish Stephens, who took a low profile in the 2004 marriage amendment fight after the gay press revealed his checkered marital history.
What if Handel had remained moderate?
Although Handel was able to survive the attacks from Stephens and become secretary of state, her oscillating on gay rights haunted her in her 2010 gubernatorial bid.
“If I were Handel preparing to run for a higher-profile statewide office, and if I were the people helping her prepare for it, I would have expected that issue to come up again, and I would have been better prepared for it,” said Democratic political consultant Beth Schapiro, who is gay. “She sort of floundered on it initially, and then — I guess retelling history might be a charitable way to put it — she just didn’t look very good in how she handled it.
“I think she certainly was afraid of it, and I think that was probably a mistake to be afraid of it,” Schapiro added. “One of the things I think that people need to think about is the times, and what’s changed in terms of attitudes and acceptance since the last time she ran for statewide office.”
Georgia Equality’s Graham agreed that Handel misjudged the peril of being subjected to anti-gay attacks.
“Rather than trying to defend herself, I think she caved in,” Graham said. “She had a pretty substantial lead in the metro Atlanta counties, and if she had run as more of a moderate and not caved into her own gay bashing, would she have been victorious in the campaign? I think that is a very, very fair question considering that there were only 2,500 votes that separated [Handel and Deal in the runoff] out of the 600,000 that were cast.”
Even some Republicans believe that GOP candidates overestimate the effectiveness of going anti-gay.
“I think you have a lot of young, naïve campaign strategists who oftentimes pull that out of their pocket because they think that’s a big issue to the public,” Towery said.
“But most people who live in suburban Atlanta, which makes up a lot of the [Georgia] population and a lot of Republicans, they are dealing with the gay community every day, whether it be where they shop, or where they eat or who they deal with in business, and contrary to what the national perception is, most Georgians, when we poll that issue, most people just don’t care.
“It’s a live and let live state,” Towery added. “Now, do they favor gay marriage? No, but then most states don’t. It’s not a hot button. People worry about eating, people worry about jobs, people worry about how they’re going to get the kids through college, and they’re not particularly interested in who wants to go out with whom or what they want to do.”
The benefits to anti-gay campaigning are likely to fade even more, Bullock said.
“Generally, the gay issue simply does not motivate younger voters, even younger voters who may identify as Republican, to the extent that it would mobilize their parents or grandparents,” Bullock said.
One indication of how quickly the political landscape is shifting on gay issues was the muted response from Republican lawmakers on the recent rulings on same-sex marriage in California.
“There really wasn’t a whole lot of the usual hollering and yelling from the Republican leadership that we normally hear at the national level because I think they get it — they look at the polls and they understand that the public is becoming much more accepting of gay people in general, and gay relationships,” Schapiro said. “Attitudes are changing, and although I know that for many of us they’re not changing fast enough, in the scheme of things, they’re changing pretty rapidly for a major social movement.”
Top photo: Former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal won the GOP gubernatorial runoff by fewer than 3,000 votes. He faces Democrat Roy Barnes and Libertarian John Monds in the November election. (Photo courtesy Deal)