In this Citizens United era of unregulated campaign cash, gay activists and donors are finding innovative ways to reward Barack Obama, who despite his equivocation on marriage equality is often lauded as the greatest friend to the LGBT community of any president in American history.
The reemergence of social issues on the presidential campaign trail, coupled with the reversal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, has helped Obama improve his standing with this key segment of the liberal base, a vital source of campaign funds for any Democrat running a presidential campaign.
“This kind of Republican campaign has mobilized the community like I haven’t seen since 1992,” said David Mixner, a veteran progressive strategist Newsweek once called the most powerful gay man in America. “There’s a lot at stake. I have no doubt people will be involved in some way in Super PACs. You can count on the major donors of this community doing whatever they have to do to assist in the re-election of this president.”
The newest tool with which the well-heeled can influence campaigns, Super PACs are independent committees that can accept unlimited donations from individuals thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and subsequent lower court rulings. And while most of the attention they have received so far this campaign has been on their providing a few billionaires with disproportionate influence on the Republican presidential primary, gay donors on the left are exploring Super PACs as well.
The Gay and Lesbian Victory fund, which works to bring more gays and lesbians into public office, recently embraced the new Citizens United terrain, expanding its traditional political action committee into a “hybrid PAC” that allows it to collect unlimited donations with a Super PAC so long as the two entities keep their bank accounts separate.
At the grassroots level, two activists in San Francisco launched “Pride PAC,” which bills itself “a Super PAC dedicated to social media advocacy for LGBT issues and the re-election of President Barack Obama.”
“Our goal is to raise a million dollars by the summer,” said Marcus Lovingood, a 26-year-old social media entrepreneur and one of the group’s founders.
The rise of the presidential campaign of former Senator Rick Santorum, notorious for comparing gay marriage to bestiality, has been a convenient reminder of the scary alternative in an environment where Obama still feels bound by political calculation not to support marriage equality. He has described his views as “evolving” on that issue, and for now, evolution is enough, as evidenced by his raking in a cool $1.4 million at a $35,800-per-plate Washington, D.C. LGBT fundraiser last month.
“Beyond the widespread support the president has clearly earned, every election ends up being a choice between option A and option B, and that contrast will be hugely in the president’s favor,” said Bill Smith, a strategist who has worked extensively with Tim Gill, the software mogul who in knocking off state legislators hostile to gay rights before they can become national figures has reshaped American politics.
In the wake of passage of marriage equality in New York, gay donors rewarded moderate Republican state legislators who broke ranks to get on the right side of history. And conversations with strategists and operatives close to some of the bigger gay donors in America, many of whom are based in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, and New York, suggest an all-of-the-above approach: regular campaign contributions, Super PAC donations, state-level organizing campaigns, and more, with protecting Obama and boosting Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin, poised to be the first openly gay U.S. Senator, as their top priorities.
“As election law changes, you have to adapt to what the opportunities are,” said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Victory Fund. “The ability to use a Super PAC on the federal level is a tool we would not want to ignore.”
Many donors and organizations are focused on Baldwin. She faces an uphill climb in a state that turned hard to the right in 2010, and the community sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; Smith called her candidacy the “Holy Grail” of gay politics.
“It’s without a doubt our highest priority race of 2012,” Wolfe said. “Winning a seat in the U.S. Senate would be a wonderful thing. And it sends a dramatic message that the country continues to move forward in its understanding of what it means for everyone to be included.”
While it remains unclear whether the new campaign finance environment will actually bring more total money into campaigns or just draw attention to a few mega-donors, for now, the community is exploring every weapon in its arsenal.
“If they max out with a federal candidate, then they have the opportunity to participate with our Super PAC,” Wolfe added. “So far, we’re feeling good.”