A Gay Voice, on the Edge of History
THE event held late last month in the penthouse of the lawyers Barry Skovgaard and Marc Wolinsky had all the trappings of a top-flight fund-raiser, with five-star finger foods, four-finger cocktails and three-term senators, as Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, spoke — and everyone else listened. Even the address, 252 Seventh Avenue, had a patina of glamour, being the building where Katie Holmes holed up after dumping Tom Cruise.
The only thing missing that evening was the guest of honor, another woman locked in a battle with a powerful man: Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic congresswoman who is running neck and neck with the longtime Republican lion Tommy Thompson for a United States Senate seat in Wisconsin. Scheduled to speak, Ms. Baldwin (who, like the hosts and many of the people in that room, is openly gay) was instead back home to respond to a sharp-elbowed new ad from Mr. Thompson, something that demanded the candidate’s presence in Wisconsin, and not amid fawning followers in a Chelsea loft.
And it is that just that balancing act — being a loyal, hard-working representative of her home state and an emerging national figure in the gay community — that has Ms. Baldwin, 50, on the edge of making history, and her supporters, including some of nation’s most important gay donors, on the edge of their seats.
Though a victory by Ms. Baldwin on Tuesday would represent the election of the first openly gay or lesbian person to the Senate, gay groups have been surprisingly low-key about their public support. Fund-raisers have largely been intimate affairs at people’s homes; no giant fund-raising galas in gay enclaves like West Hollywood or the Castro in San Francisco. There have been no celebrity onslaughts like those unleashed in the federal court fight against Proposition 8 (California’s same-sex marriage ban).
And while outside money from everywhere has been gushing in, a mere trickle of staff members from gay groups are showing up in the election’s final days. Even a round of reporting phone calls to some of the country’s biggest gay groups and activists, most of whom are typically eager to talk about their political support for issues and candidates, were initially greeted with requests to go off the record or speak on background.
Gay rights groups, particularly those based outside Wisconsin, seemed to have been careful not to look too involved, concerned that the appearance of outside influence on Lombardi-land politics might be used against Ms. Baldwin, particularly at the last minute.
Being out, it would seem, is not a problem. But being from outside Wisconsin could be. Such fears aren’t unfounded: candidates in a few other races have seen recent attacks suggesting that national gay groups are trying to push a “radical agenda,” though the Wisconsin race, to date, has been largely focused on the economy.
Not that any Congressional race is really local anymore. Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest civil rights organization devoted to gay and lesbian issues and a backer of Ms. Baldwin, said that both she and Mr. Thompson have big-time financial supporters all over the country. But he said the race was not about national issues, per se. “She is the candidate that has captivated the folks in that state,” he said.
The president and chief executive of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute, Chuck Wolfe, agreed, adding that the 2010 Citizens United case had effectively “nationalized” Senate races. In Wisconsin, he said his group (a nonpartisan organization that works to get gay candidates elected) had raised and spent “seven figures” helping Ms. Baldwin, more than it had ever spent “on any other race.”
Then, a moment later, he joked, “Mind you, those lines will probably appear in a tweet now.”
Mr. Wolfe noted that Mr. Thompson, a former governor, has received far more support from deep-pocket conservative groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads, based in Washington, which paid for a recent ad proclaiming “Tommy Thompson governs the Wisconsin way.” And indeed, giving by nongay groups, on both sides, has dwarfed money raised by groups like the Victory Fund.
For instance, Emily’s List, a group that supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights, has raised $4.5 million on Ms. Baldwin’s behalf.
John Kraus, a Baldwin spokesman, didn’t directly answer questions about her out-of-state support from gay groups and others, but noted that 95 percent of their individual contributions had been $200 or less.
Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, said that she had heard of gay donors across the country giving generously to Ms. Baldwin but that much support was coming from the middle of the country.
“It used to be that if a gay politician wanted to get elected, they had to go to the coasts to find money to support their candidacy,” Ms. Kendell said. “I don’t think that’s true any longer.”
Sarah Schmidt, the group’s chairwoman and treasurer of LPAC, a new lesbian political action committee, said she thought that Wisconsin’s seeming nonchalance about Ms. Baldwin’s sexuality “is another milestone.” Ms. Baldwin is open about her sexuality at home or on the road, where she has proved to be a popular draw. In April, for example, she was featured at the Victory Fund’s National Champagne Brunch, a $150-a-seat fete held at the Washington Hilton, and at a similar Victory Fund event in Houston in March.
Fund-raising for her campaign began even earlier than that, including a cocktail reception in February held at the SoHo home of Sean Eldridge, an investor and activist, and his husband, Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook, which drew a wide array of gay movers and shakers, including Christine C. Quinn, the openly gay City Council speaker, who spoke at the event.
Big East Coast fund-raisers are a staple for most candidates, including President Obama and Mitt Romney, but Ms. Baldwin’s visits have tended to be smaller affairs, including another recent New York City event (for about 25 people) at the West Village home of Lela Goren, who works in real estate development and investment.
Brian Ellner, who helped lead the charge to get same-sex marriage legalized in New York and who was at the Seventh Avenue event, said that Ms. Baldwin’s campaign was “enormously important in real terms and symbolic terms,” for the nation’s most important gay rights donors.
“I think most people have been all in,” Mr. Ellner said.
That said, gay rights backers are also finding their pocketbooks pulled by the presidential races and three state ballot measures that would legalize same-sex marriage. So much of the grunt work has been handled by Wisconsin-based grassroots groups like Fair Wisconsin, which has been mobilizing voters on campus and online. Some out-of-state volunteers have come to help, with a handful of Victory Fund staff members, but they say their numbers are small.
Richard Socarides, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said that Ms. Baldwin had a “dignified, humble Midwestern approach.”
And again, he emphasized, her potential election had nothing to do with her being gay.
“Her sexual orientation is really not relevant to why she would make a great U.S. senator,” he said in an e-mail. “But to us it makes all the difference in the world because she is one of us.”