Members of the LGBTQ community have long experienced discrimination and bigotry, but when such prejudice is promoted from within government institutions and codified as policy, the effects leave a particular sting. When Danica Roem defeated Virginia’s self-proclaimed “chief homophobe” for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, LGBTQ activists had plenty of reasons to celebrate. In her victory, Roem – who herself is transgender – ousted the architect of Virginia’s “bathroom bill” designed to prevent trans individuals from using the facility that corresponds with their gender identity. After her win, Roem told Bloomberg, “It’s incumbent upon us to step up and support candidates who share our values, and if we can’t find any, then we go run for office ourselves.”
Other citizens are heeding her message and are filing to run against their own elected officials perceived to be governing with anti-LGBTQ biases. These brave Americans, often political novices, are challenging sitting officeholders specifically because of the actions they have taken against their LGBTQ constituents. David Ermold, a resident of Rowan County, Kentucky, saw his marriage application process go viral when he and his partner were denied a license by county clerk Kim Davis because they are gay, in direct violation of the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. The incident devolved into an international media circus, culminating with Davis emerging from a five-day stint in a county jail into the waiting arms of Mike Huckabee, then a candidate for President. In 2017, Ermold filed to run for clerk himself, seeking to challenge the woman who denied his marriage application two years ago. He told the Associated Press, “I have an obligation here, really, to do this and to set things right.” On his campaign website, Ermold states that he ran “to restore the people’s confidence in our clerk’s office…[who] should always be an example of integrity and fairness.”
While Ermold had first-hand experience with anti-LGBTQ discrimination from a government official, others choose to run to defend the rights of their loved ones. Beth Monaghan of North Carolina decided to challenge her own State Senator – in the Republican primary, no less – due to his introduction of HB2, the “bathroom bill” that eventually led to a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice and the departure of numerous business and sports organizations from the state. Monaghan, whose adult son Jordan is gay, explained what motivated her run: “For my home state to pass legislation that said, in effect, my son is ‘less than,’ saddened and infuriated me.” She added, “There’s nobody that’s a stronger advocate for their child than a mother.” Monaghan is an accomplished CPA and entrepreneur, and she frequently discussed fiscal responsibility and education reform on the campaign trail. However, she also made clear that her candidacy was a direct response to her legislator’s championing of HB2, claiming, “If I was not living in Dan Bishop’s district I would not be running for office.”
Ermold, a Democrat, and Monaghan, a Republican, both lost their respective primaries. For Beth Monaghan, this was the expected result. She was new to politics and running against a well-known incumbent in the 39th senate district, the only district in otherwise liberal Mecklenburg County to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. One North Carolina GOP insider claimed that Monaghan would be “merely symbolic opposition.” She won 29% of the vote to her opponent’s 71%. Still, Monaghan took pride in her showing as a sign of progress in North Carolina, claiming, “Every single donor, volunteer, and vote showed the world that our state does not stand for bigotry.”
David Ermold’s loss in the Democratic primary, on the other hand, did come as a shock to many. He had garnered national attention and counted notables such as Susan Sarandon and Amy Schumer among his donors. Sheer name recognition alone was expected to carry him across the finish line and to a showdown with Davis (who ran unopposed for the Republican nomination) in the fall. Due to the unusually high profile of the race, the avalanche of money that came pouring in from at least 48 states was staggering. Ermold raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, literally 100 times as much as the rest of the Democratic primary field combined and more than three times the amount Auditor Mike Harmon spent to win his statewide race in 2015. Ermold had enough money for 11 paid staff members and was even selling T-shirts that read, “David Ermold for County Clerk” in rainbow text.
Despite these advantages, Ermold still came in distant second in a four-way race, trailing the top vote-getter by more than 30%. Those on the ground in Rowan County, however, were less surprised than outside observers. Jim Tom Trent, the Mayor of Morehead in Rowan County, chalked up Ermold’s loss to factors other than his sexuality, noting that primary victor Elwood Caudill, Jr. was a long-term county employee, a fourth-generation resident of the county, and had come within just 23 votes of defeating Davis in the Democratic primary four years earlier. Ermold’s share of the votes should be seen as a victory, Trent argued, echoing the sentiments of Beth Monaghan in North Carolina. “The fact that David received nearly 1,000 votes in an Eastern Kentucky town running as an openly gay man says a lot about where our community has come from since the controversy a few years ago,” Trent said, adding that Ermold’s vote share “shows we don’t have a hate-filled community.” Like Monaghan, perhaps Ermold was “merely symbolic opposition” – and maybe that’s okay. Both candidates lost to more entrenched and experienced politicians, but both had their message heard on a national level.
For some voters, candidates garnering national attention for LGBTQ issues may have just been too much too soon. Emerging scholarship on LGBTQ candidates has shown that running for office as “the gay candidate” can have adverse effects. Ewa Golebiowska finds that when gay and lesbian candidates disclose their sexual orientation only after they are well-known to voters for their stances on other issues, they achieve more electoral success. Similarly, Billy Kluttz and David Niven argue that out candidates often “mute” their sexual identity to win, downplaying those “tells” traditionally associated with LGBT people. Gay candidates still face barriers with voters and can be perceived as less honest, weaker, and amoral, and may also fare worse when compared to otherwise identical non-LGBTQ candidates. Echoing all of these findings, Donald Haider-Markel concludes in his book Out and Running that “if LGBT candidates are strategic, their sexual orientation is not likely to significantly hinder their election opportunities.”
Ermold and Monaghan were by no means single-issue candidates, though the genesis of their campaigns and the attention they received often branded them as such. By running as “the gay candidates,” Ermold and Monaghan may have hurt their chances at electoral success, but maybe victory wasn’t their primary goal. Of course, the two candidates would have preferred to win, but perhaps simply drawing attention to their cause was enough – at least for now.
Recently, I wrote about accusations that former Alabama Representative Patricia Todd was “weaponizing queerness,” attempting to out current Governor Kay Ivey to hurt her electorally. For David Ermold and Beth Monaghan, perhaps queerness was weaponized for their own gain. Because of attacks against them or their loved ones, they singled out perceived bigots and used queer identity to fight back. By categorizing discriminatory government action as decidedly anti-LGBTQ, they sought to bring an ongoing civil rights issue to the fore. Though the strategy may not have resulted in an electoral triumph, the campaigns were not without their victories. While they may not have changed their would-be constituents’ votes this time around, perhaps they made progress in changing their hearts and minds.
Rick Kavin is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Rutgers-New Brunswick and a research assistant at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.