The governor of Texas. A US congresswoman from Massachusetts. A US Senator from Delaware.
These are just three of the offices LGBTQ candidates are hoping to assume this November in the midterm elections. Across the country, LGBTQ candidates are running in record numbers, mostly as Democrats but some as Republicans.
Some are running to challenge state and local anti-LGBTQ policies. Others are running as a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s administration.
And in interviews with CNN, most candidates agreed that increased acceptance of the LGBTQ community has contributed to their ability run and said that visibility and representation are important.
When Lupe Valdez, the Democratic nominee in the Texas’ governor’s race, first ran for Dallas County Sheriff in 2004, she sought the endorsement of the Latino Peace Officers Association. Making her pitch to the group, she says the head of the association told her, “We will never endorse a lesbian. You’re going to shame us even though you’re part of the Hispanic community.”
“Of course, I thanked them and walked out to my car,” Valdez told CNN. “You know, I teared up a little bit because being a lesbian is just part of who I am.”
This election cycle, Valdez is one of more than 400 LGBTQ candidates the Victory Institute has identified running for office this election cycle. The group, which identifies and trains potential LGBTQ candidates, says that’s more LGBTQ candidates to run for office in an election year than ever before.
According to the Institute’s 2018 “Out for America” report, openly LGBTQ elected officials hold 559 positions nationwide. But in order to achieve equitable representation, the organization says the country would need to elect 22,827 more LGBTQ individuals nationwide.
This year’s pool includes several high-profile Democratic LGBTQ candidates: Chelsea Manning running for Senate in Maryland, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney running for New York Attorney General and Cynthia Nixon running for governor of New York.
Valdez still won her election even after failing to snag the group’s endorsement and served as Dallas County Sheriff for 13 years. After her victory, she recalled, she met a woman at the airport.
“Here comes this Anglo woman, obviously well-to-do, from another county, probably Republican, trying to tell me how excited she was about my election. As we talk in my mind I’m thinking – What does this woman have in common with me?” Valdez said.
The woman said her son was at one point in the closet and depressed, and that she was once worried he would take his own life. Then the woman asked for a picture.
“She said to me, ‘I have to take a picture because my son will never believe that I sat next to you,’” Valdez said, tearing up. “When she took the picture, she said your election validated my son.”
Alexandra Chandler, a Democrat running in a crowded House primary in Massachusetts, said that her decision to run in 2018 mirrored a common experience among female candidates running for public office: having to be asked multiple times by others before gathering the confidence to run.
Chandler, a transgender woman, said a vow to serve her country after experiencing the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York City led her to work as an intelligence analyst until last year. In 2006, while she was still serving in the intelligence community, she decided to transition, fully expected to lose her job.
She said during a town hall to discuss employee benefits, a colleague stood up and said, “This drag queen that’s going to be in our bathrooms and all of this – this is disgusting. This person should be fired.” Half of the auditorium, she says, applauded her colleague’s statement.
“When I came out to my supervisors, I presumed I was going to be fired or it would be a process of me leaving quietly. But instead what happened instead was, even though it would have been within their rights to fire me, the chain of command – mostly conservative people who had never met a trans person before, knowingly at least – they stood by me,” Chandler told CNN. “That just gives me a faith and optimism that I think people have responded to well in this campaign. People crave that. And it’s not faith and optimism that’s just words and talking points. It’s grounded in real experience.”
Chandler attributed the rise in LGBTQ candidates to “self-defense combined with confidence.”
“When one is under attack you can either crouch down, hide, despair. Or you can stand up and fight. For a lot of LGBT people, it’s about standing up and fighting,” she said.
Christine Hallquist, a Democrat hoping to become Vermont’s next governor, expressed similar sentiments. The former CEO of Vermont Electric Coop, who is running on a platform of environmental and economic justice, transitioned in 2015.
“I was sure I was going to lose my job. I was sure I was going to lose respect. But that didn’t happen,” Hallquist said. “So this describes the beauty of Vermont. So now I’m at this point where I can’t do enough to give back to Vermont.”
The Victory Institute, an organization with a sister political action committee called the Victory Fund, is geared toward encouraging more LGBTQ candidates to run for office. This election cycle, the fund, which requires candidates to identify as LGBTQ and be pro-choice in order to earn their endorsement, has endorsed 133 candidates. While the institute saw that LGBTQ politicians in office rose 24.8% overall since last year’s annual “Out for America” report, the number of LGBTQ Republicans in office has shrunk at the same time.
Nearly all the LGBTQ candidates CNN spoke with said they were inspired by the historic election of Virginia Democratic delegate Danica Roem, a transgender woman elected in 2017, who was open about her LGBTQ identity, but ran a platform focusing on the district’s road problems.
J.D. Ford, a Democrat running for Indiana’s state Senate, said he sees the rise in LGBTQ candidates partially as a rebuke of state’s anti-LGBTQ policies and the Trump administration.
Ford faces incumbent Republican Mike Delph, who pushed a referendum on same-sex marriage in the state.
“I live in Indiana, so this is the home of Mike Pence. We’re at the epicenter of all that,” Ford said.
“Going back to the past couple of years in Indiana, it’s been very tumultuous for the LGBTQ+ community because of what I call legislative bullying,” Ford added, referring to Delph’s policy pushes and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by Pence in 2015.
Republican Gene Truono, a former PayPal executive running to replace Democratic US Sen. Tom Carper, says that despite the small pool of GOP LGBTQ candidates, he doesn’t believe the disparity between Republicans and Democrats among the LGBTQ pool of candidates is necessarily a result of a rebuke of Republican or Trump administration policies.
Among conservatives in his home state, Truono said his sexuality isn’t commonly an issue. He recalled an evangelical pastor telling him on gay marriage: “Gene, as far as I’m concerned that’s a decided issue by the Supreme Court in 2015. I’m more concerned where you stand on life, where you stand on religious freedom and liberty.”
However, Truono also said that though incidents are rare, he has not been immune to scrutiny for his sexuality since deciding to launch the campaign. He encountered one tense incident with some potential voters in West Sussex County.
“Most of the group seemed relatively receptive. There was one gentleman who threw some magazines with gay men on the cover and said, ‘My religion teaches me this is a sin. I can’t support someone like you,’” Truono said.
“I’m not offended easily, so I just looked at him and said ‘If that’s how you feel then you’ve obviously made up your mind, but I’d appreciate if you’d listen to where I stand on other issues,’” he added.
Log Cabin Republicans’ national office tells CNN that they’ve identified six LGBTQ GOP candidates running for office in local and federal offices nationwide. Gregory Angelo, the president of Log Cabin Republicans, said that he sees that LGBTQ Republicans have viable races this year, with some of them running for reelection.
“Throughout America, you are seeing members of the LGBTQ community running for office as so much more than their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Angelo said, adding that over the course of his five years leading the organization, he has “seen a trend of more LGBTQ Republicans running for office, not less.”