November 2016 was a bad election for Democrats and the progressive community. But when looked at through the lens of the gay rights movement, it was actually pretty decent.
Gay rights groups helped unseat a Republican governor in North Carolina who vigorously defended a law restricting what public bathrooms transgender people can use. On the national level, Hillary Clinton was the first major-party presidential nominee to make gay rights a prominent part of her campaign. Exit polls show lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters were the only demographic group to increase their support for Clinton over President Barack Obama four years ago.
That's the background against which the Human Rights Campaign is launching its largest, most sustained investment in politics.
The nation's most influential LGBT rights advocacy group announced Tuesday that it will spend $26 million and hire at least 20 additional political staffers to deploy across all 50 states ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. The goal: replicate what happened in North Carolina in Senate, House and governor's races across the nation next year and make the LGBT vote one of the most forceful voting blocs in the progressive movement.
The impetus: Like so many fired-up left-leaning groups these days, it's President Trump.
“I think folks believed that after the Supreme Court ruled on marriage, that we were headed quickly toward a place of full equality in this country,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “And the president's attacks on our community — and so many minority communities — has served to be, in many ways, a great awakening of our democracy.”
The Human Rights Campaign isn't a newcomer to politics. The group has been around since 1980 and has field and volunteer staff across the nation. But Griffin said until now, the group had the resources to drop into a political battle only for a couple of months, then leave when it was over.
Since Trump got elected, donations to the group are flooding in (most donations are under $10), LGBT people are stepping out alongside other progressive groups to protest and, for the first time, there will be a dedicated effort to keep this community politically activated.
The Human Rights Campaign will be investing in all 50 states but will put its North Carolina model to the test specifically in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada. They're all swing states, most of which Trump won, and all have big 2018 Senate races as well as some potentially competitive governor's races.
Griffin cited the group's desire to defend Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay U.S. senator, who could face a tough reelection next year.
The Human Rights Campaign also will play in House races. Of the 25 House Republicans who represent districts that Clinton won — think Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — 23 get a failing score from the Human Rights Campaign on gay rights. The group would love to kick some of those lawmakers out of office next year, which would go a long way in Democrats making gains in the House.
Gay rights advocates think the raw potential is there for them to make a big difference, perhaps in a way other progressive groups haven't.
Griffin said LGBT people are uniquely touched by politics because they aren't just one demographic. They're many. “LGBTQ people are Muslims,” Griffin said, “So when he attacks Muslims, he's attacked our community. LGBTQ people are women, so when he tries to defund Planned Parenthood, that's an attack on LGBTQ people.”
A 2012 study by UCLA Law's Williams Institute suggested that without the support of LGBT voters in four swing states, Obama could have lost the election.
That same bloc of voters, which made up about 5 percent of the voting pool in 2016, went for Clinton over Trump by a record-breaking 78 percent. In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory lost his reelection bid even as Trump won the state by 3.5 percent.
And then there are polls that show more adults identifying as LGBT (an estimated 10 million) and more record support for same-sex marriage. A May Gallup poll found that 64 percent of respondents think it should be legal.
But the gay rights community has had its political struggles, too. About the same time they've grown as a voting bloc, Republicans have gained control of government at nearly every level.
Despite popular support for it, there is no federal anti-discrimination law protecting LGBT people.
Every year for the past couple of years, LGBT people have played whack-a-mole at the state legislative level, trying to knock down legislation that restricts where they can use the bathroom, where they can live, what businesses can refuse to serve them, or, most recently, whether they can adopt children in states such as Texas, Alabama and South Dakota.
As Democrats have lost ground, so has the gay rights movement (with the exception of same-sex marriage being legalized).
But the nation's largest LGBT advocacy group feels confident — $26 million worth of confident — that aggressive advocacy on its part could go a long way to boosting not only its prominence but the entire progressive agenda.