Voters may have taken a giant step to the right on Tuesday, handing Republicans control of the Senate, as well as a slew of more surprising gubernatorial victories, but LGBT equality still managed to have a pretty solid night.
Plenty of staunch anti-gay candidates won their races — for instance North Carolina Senator-elect Thom Tillis and Arkansas Senator-elect Tom Cotton, who were both buoyed by a $200,000-plus get-out-the-vote effort from the National Organization for Marriage. Reelection victories for Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi will likely also extend the fight for marriage equality in those states.
However, a number of openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual candidates and equality allies also triumphed.
In Massachusetts, Democrat Maura Healey defeated Republican candidate John B. Miller to become the first openly gay attorney general in American history. A former assistant attorney general, Healey argued — and won the first challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which was ultimately gutted last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. (The justices ended up ruling on a different DOMA case than the one Healey spearheaded.) The 43-year-old will fill the seat vacated by Martha Coakley, who lost her race for governor of Massachusetts to Republican Charlie Baker.
"Maura Healey is one of the staunchest advocates for equality we have in this country, and we join her in celebrating her historic victory,” said the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) President Chad Griffin in a statement. “As the nation's first openly gay attorney general, she is an inspirational trailblazer and will fight to guarantee civil rights and legal equality for all people of Massachusetts."
Additionally, a handful of openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of Congress won their reelection bids, two of which took place in difficult swing districts. Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema was reelected in the 9th Congressional District race for the U.S. House of Representatives, beating out Republican Wendy Rogers. Sinema, a member of the Congressional Blue Dogs Caucus, became the first openly bisexual member of either chamber when she was elected to Congress in 2012. Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of Cold Spring, New York, also held onto his seat in a strong challenge from former Republican Rep. Nan Hayworth. The 48-year-old Maloney, who married his longtime partner, Randy Florke, earlier this year, narrowly defeated Hayworth in the last election cycle as well.
“Those were a couple of races that could’ve gone badly, but didn’t,” Denis Dison, senior vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, told msnbc. “The fact that they were reelected to second terms is a really good sign.”
Out of 164 candidates endorsed by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund this year, Dison said about 63% won their elections. Among the victors:
- Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, who was the first openly gay male elected to Congress as a freshman in 2008
- Rep. David Cicilline, who was reelected to Congress from Rhode Island’s 1st District
- Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, who was first elected to Congress in 2012, replacing another openly gay trailblazer, Sen. Tammy Baldwin
- California Rep. Mark Takano, who became Congress’ first LGBT person of color in 2012
The Human Rights Campaign also celebrated victories from pro-equality candidates, including:
- Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who came out in support of marriage equality earlier this year
- Sen. Jeff Merkley, who led the way in stumping for the repeal of Oregon’s same-sex marriage ban
- New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who was the first U.S. senator to join a campaign urging the Democratic party to adopt platform language endorsing marriage equality.
- Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the only Republican endorsed by the HRC for Senate, is one of the few GOP lawmakers to come out in favor of marriage equality
In local ballot races, the election of openly gay candidate John McCrostie for Idaho House of Representatives was another noteworthy victory. “All 50 states now have at least one openly gay elected official" with his win, said Dison.
Of course, there were also some disappointments for LGBT candidates and potential glass ceiling breakers. Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud came up short in his bid to unseat the incredibly wacky Maine Gov. Paul LePage, whose record includes telling the NAACP to “kiss [his] butt,” and comparing the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo. Had Michaud won, he would’ve been the first openly gay person elected governor in the United States. Nevada Assembly candidate Lauren Scott also failed to earn the title of “first openly trans person elected to state office in the U.S.” when she lost to Democratic incumbent Mike Sprinkle. In Massachusetts, former state Sen. Richard Tisei was defeated by Democrat Seth Moulton in the hotly contested 6th Congressional District race. Had Tisei won, he would’ve been the first openly gay Republican ever elected to Congress. Carl DeMaio could still win that title out in California, but his razor-thin lead over Democratic Rep. Scott Peters is still too close to call.
Despite these defeats, LGBT advocates are cautiously optimistic they won’t detract from the equality movement’s stunning momentum built up over the past year. Support for marriage equality was evenly split — 48% to 48% — according to the NBC News national exit poll. That’s down one percentage from the 49% of voters who supported marriage equality in 2012. But the issue has already been widely considered in federal and state courtrooms across the country, leading to an unprecedented flood of legal decisions declaring same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional.
A number of Republican winners actually took marriage equality off the table this election cycle, either by changing their positions or declaring it a settled issue. Where the Republican majority in Congress stands to do the most damage for LGBT equality is actually in the fight to pass non-discrimination legislation, such as ENDA, which cleared the Democratic Senate last year but never made it to vote in the GOP House. That bill — along with a similar civil rights measure that would institute LGBT protections in public accommodations, housing, credit, education, and federal programs — may grind to a halt with Republicans in the driver's seat.
Another concern is that the next Congress could put forth a federal religious exemption bill that would essentially make recognizing marriage equality optional — meaning individuals or officials who want nothing to do with same-sex unions could opt-out of serving same-sex couples. No incoming lawmaker has put forth such plans, but some advocates are bracing for the worst.
"Without a doubt, Republicans in the next Congress will put forward legislation that will have horrifying consequences for LGBTQ folks — and President Obama should start testing his veto pen now, because he'll need it," said Heath Cronk, co-director of the group GetEqual, in an email to msnbc. "But 2015 also provides an opening to push forward with a much-needed federal LGBTQ equality bill that could allow the emerging American majority of young people, people of color, and LGBTQ people to once again believe in the democratic government."