What Republican wave?
That's the question Republicans Carl DeMaio and Richard Tisei might well be asking following a midterm election that was good news for their party, but bad news for them. Either could have made history as the first openly gay Republican to be elected to Congress. Both lost.
In fact, all three openly gay Republican congressional contenders fell short in 2014. (The third was New Hampshire Republican Dan Innis, who lost his primary.) Their defeats, taken together, were a setback for Republicans who seek a more inclusive roster of party leaders. At the same time, some social conservatives were pleased with the outcome, revealing a party that remains divided between those who encourage gay candidates and those who want to keep them away from the corridors of power.
The losses came as other Republicans added diversity to their ranks in other ways. Mia Love of Utah rode the GOP wave into office, becoming the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress. It helped Joni Ernst and Shelley Moore Capito become the first women elected to the Senate from Iowa and West Virginia.
"That day would have been much sweeter had either Mr. DeMaio or Mr. Tisei pulled out a win," said Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, of the Nov. 4 election.
Given the scope of the wave that swept the GOP into the Senate majority and padded the party's House majority, both Tisei and DeMaio ran in what were very winnable districts for the GOP. But both fought late-breaking developments that worked against them.
The last to lose was DeMaio, who conceded Saturday to Rep. Scott Peters (D) in a hard-fought battle for a San Diego-area swing district. Tisei, who was making his second straight run for Congress, lost by double-digits to Democrat Seth Moulton in Massachusetts. Innis, a first-time candidate, was no match for former congressman Frank Guinta (R) in September.
While they didn't shy away from it, none of the three candidates emphasized his sexuality or the historic nature of his campaign on the trail, either. Instead, they ran as socially liberal, fiscally conservative candidates much keener to talk about jobs and the economy than their status as potential trailblazers.
"A lot of press has made a big deal about the importance of electing gay Republicans, but really the interesting thing about DeMaio or Tisei's race is neither was running and saying, 'Please elect me because I'm the gay Republican,'" said Angelo.
Still, social conservative activists saw them as a threat. A trio of such groups penned a letter to Republican congressional leaders urging them not to back to those candidates due to their support for gay marriage and abortion rights.
In a statement claiming success for helping defeat Tisei, DeMaio and Monica Wehby, an Oregon Republican Senate candidate who supported gay marriage and abortion rights, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said the party faithful "demands candidates who are committed to defending marriage, which is a critical element of the Republican platform." NOM opposes gay marriage and was among the groups petitioning GOP leaders to reject Tisei and DeMaio.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, another group that urged Republicans not to back DeMaio and Tisei, wrote supporters Monday to argue those candidates' losses suggested they are out of step with the GOP.
"For all the talk of expanding the GOP tent, the openly homosexual crop of Carl DeMaio (Calif.), Richard Tisei (Mass.), and Dan Innis (N.H.) were just as unpopular with voters as they were unfaithful to key issues," he said.
Tisei once looked like a promising candidate. But he was dealt some bad luck in September when Moulton, an Iraq War veteran, unseated Rep. John Tierney (D) in the primary. Tierney was seen as a more vulnerable opponent due to his family's legal woes.
DeMaio, meanwhile, confronted sexual harassment allegations during the final weeks of the campaign.
Innis ran up against a better-known candidate in Guinta, who won his old House seat back in the general election.
In short, there was no one factor that contributed to the defeat of the three Republicans. But Angelo, who spent time campaigning for DeMaio in his district, said he encountered some voters who were simply not inclined to elect an openly gay candidate.
"Homophobia may not be alive and well. But it definitely is still alive," he said.
The debate over gay rights never emerged as a central issue in the 2014 midterm campaigns. But looking ahead to the 2016 presidential race, it may become a bigger deal. Democrats, including President Obama and potential White House contender Hillary Clinton, have rushed to embrace gay marriage in recent years. States are legalizing it. The courts have mostly sided with gay marriage supporters.
Top Republicans with an eye on the presidency still remain mostly opposed to gay marriage -- even as some party strategists fret that will put them on the wrong side of the debate in the eyes of the public as time goes on.
Some Republicans believed electing an openly gay candidate would nudge the party in a new direction that could pay dividends in future campaigns. But even after a banner year for the GOP, that shift will have to wait for at least one more election cycle.