In a moving op-ed published in both the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald early this morning, Democratic Congressman and candidate for governor Mike Michaud opened up about a part of his life that he has kept very private until now and came out publicly as gay.
This makes Michaud the first out member of Congress from Maine and, if elected in November, would make him the first openly gay candidate to become governor of any state in the country.
It seems almost crass to discuss the political effects of what was a very personal decision by Michaud to share this part of his identity, a part that he notes in his op-ed should not be a factor when people cast their ballots. In the world in which we live, however, this decision will have an impact on the gubernatorial race and could have at least a symbolic effect on politics more broadly.
Polls, fundraising and other metrics will soon allow us more real insight, but here are some initial thoughts on how this information could change the race:
Both measures of public opinion and electoral results show that voters have a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian candidates for office. Last year, Gallup reported that 68% of voters nationally would be willing to cast their ballot for a gay or lesbian candidate for President, with 30% unwilling to do so (interestingly, numbers that are far ahead of support for same-sex marriage). 123 of 180 candidates endorsed by the Victory Fund, which supports out LGBT candidates, won their races in 2012.
Even conservative House Speaker John Boehner, a staunch opponent of gay rights, found his way to supporting a gay candidate in Massachusetts last year.
This is a complete reversal from the state of public opinion when Mike Michaud first entered politics as a State Representative in 1980. The same question asked by Gallup in 1978 found 66% unwilling to vote for a lesbian or gay presidential candidate.
For some historical perspective, the current 68% of voters willing to support a gay candidate can be compared to the percentage of acceptance determined by Gallup of a female candidate in 1971 (66%), a Catholic candidate in 1958 (67%), or a black candidate in 1971 (69%).
The 30% of voters unwilling to support a gay candidate in a national poll may seem like a significant potential downside for Michaud, but this number doesn’t tell the whole story.
First of all, the Maine electorate is more accepting of fairness and equality for gays and lesbians than the nation as a whole and Mainers have supported a number of civil rights laws, including passing marriage equality for same-sex couples by referendum last year.
Second, many or most anti-gay voters who make their decisions based on these kinds of issues were never going to vote for Michaud anyway. His public support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights had probably already alienated them. In a recent national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 20% of voters said mere support for same-sex marriage would be a determining factor for them in voting against a candidate.
Third, the specific dynamics of this particular election may be of benefit to Michaud. Governor LePage seems to have already locked down the conservative end of the electorate (and most of the anti-gay vote) and the fluidity in the race is among the moderate and progressive voters who will decide between Michaud and Cutler. Up to this point, Michaud seems to have had an advantage over Cutler among a wide swath of these voters (and a lead in the polls) because of name recognition and issues of economics and class (the millworker vs. the millionaire), but Cutler has found some purchase on social issues.
Now, that dynamic has changed. Many Southern Maine voters who hold progressive positions on these kinds of issues are being newly introduced to Michaud, including irregular voters and previous backers of Cutler. They will learn about the Congressman not just as a candidate with the experience he says is right to lead the state, but as someone who could make history by doing so and this may give them an extra reason to consider his candidacy and turn out to vote.
Fourth, this part of Michaud’s identity will make him a symbol for supporters of equal rights for LGBT people across the country (whether he likes it or not) and will likely dramatically increase his fundraising potential.
My best guess would be that this part of Michaud’s story being public helps more than hurts his campaign.
There’s more than a year until the election, however, and anything could happen. It will be interesting to see how this and other factors shape the race in the coming months. One thing is for sure: if LePage’s ideology and comments haven’t already put this election on the national radar, it’s certainly there now.
Update: Another, more concrete potential political effect of this decision, from EqualityMaine board member (and BDN blogger) Ethan Strimling:
“Smart because of the power of EqualityMaine. I have the honor of serving on their board and while I am not speaking on behalf of the organization, I expect that Michaud coming out becomes a game changer. As an organization dedicated to moving equality forward for LGBT Mainers, I imagine, and again this is just my opinion, there’s a good chance that they will now put their full political weight behind Michaud even though independent candidate Eliot Cutler is excellent on LGBT issues. And from money to ground troops to passion; no one matches the political power of EqualityMaine.”
Update II: EqualityMaine communications director Ian Grady emails with a clarification:
“I want to clarify that EqualityMaine has not yet made endorsement decisions about any 2014 races. We believe that every openly LGBT elected official and candidate is good for Maine, and good for LGBT people.”