Why Did a Major Gay Rights Group Endorse a Republican Senator Over a Pro-LGBTQ Democrat?

Republican Sen. Mark Kirk (on the right), whom the Human Rights Campaign recently endorsed for re-election.

Frank Polich/Getty Images

The Human Rights Campaign is undoubtedly the biggest and most influential LGBTQ rights organization in the world. It deserves great credit for its work on marriage equality, and has even begun to atone for its questionable record on trans rights by leading the charge against anti-trans “bathroom bills.” But HRC recently committed an unforced error of astonishing ineptitude that necessitates a re-evaluation of the group’s core mission: It endorsed Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois for re-election over his challenger, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

If you squint, you can see why HRC thought this endorsement was canny and logical. In announcing the endorsement, HRC President Chad Griffin praised Kirk for co-sponsoring the Equality Act, a federal LGBTQ rights bill which Kirk’s Republican colleagues are devoted to quashing. “Senator Kirk’s leadership on the Equality Act sends a strong message that fairness and equality are bipartisan values,” Griffin proclaimed. “Senator Kirk has fought for us, and we are proud to support him in his re-election campaign.”

Some liberals, including DailyKos’ David Nir, interpret this endorsement as a cynical ploy to draw in more Republican donors. That may be part of the calculus, but I lean toward taking HRC at its word. I assume it is playing the long game here: By standing by Kirk, the organization hopes to send a signal to other Republican legislators that an occasional gesture toward LGBTQ equality will earn them the group’s loyalty and clout. (HRC has pulled this move before, endorsing the Republican incumbent over then-Rep. Charles Schumer in his first Senate race.)

There may be room for such a strategy in the House of Representatives, and in state legislatures—and, in other years, in the Senate. It is a political fact that LGBTQ rights will be permanently stymied if Democrats are the party of equality and Republicans are the party of anti-gay animus. As a lobbying organization, HRC needs to maintain a broad bipartisan stance, and to generously reward Republicans who break from the party line. That’s how gay rights advocates won marriage equality in New York—by persuading a few key Republican state senators to defect with the promise of future financial support.

This tactic can obviously work, so we shouldn’t criticize HRC for attempting to play the long game with Kirk. Rather, we should criticize them for attempting to play the long game stupidly. Everyone knows that the Equality Act—and every other piece of pro-LGBTQ legislation—can only pass the Senate if Democrats control the chamber. There is no possibility that Republican leadership will permit LGBTQ rights bills to come to a vote. The Senate map is quite favorable to Democrats in 2016, but their only path to victory involves picking off Republican senators in purple states—senators like Mark Kirk. In other words, HRC’s goal of rewarding pro-LGBTQ GOP senators runs directly counter to their broader goal of, you know, passing pro-LGBTQ legislation.

Endorsing Kirk might be more palatable if he were running against a conservative Democrat with a middling record on gay and trans rights. He is not. Duckworth, his Democratic opponent, has maintained perfect voting record on LGBTQ equality during her time in the House. In fact, HRC awarded her a 100 percent score on her equality report card. Kirk scored a 78.

I asked HRC why it would endorse a candidate who, by its own estimation, is less progressive on LGBTQ issues than his opponent. JoDee Winterhof, Senior Vice President for Policy and Political Affairs, insisted that Kirk’s current score doesn’t factor in his support of the Equality Act, and that “scores in the House and Senate are not comparable.” Winterhof also said that “HRC has always been a bipartisan organization and when incumbents stand up for equality—regardless of party—HRC stands with them”:

At a time when many in his party are trying to roll back our rights, Sen. Kirk has worked to move the GOP in a pro-equality direction, and we will need such bipartisan leadership if we ever hope to pass laws like the Equality Act.

Who can argue with that? It’s wonderful that Kirk supports equality, but his own leaders—men like Sen. Mitch McConnell—will never let allow his pro-LGBTQ bills to become law. Kirk’s about-face on LGBTQ rights is very nice, and may presage a future shift within his party. But right now there is only one way to pass the Equality Act, and that is to restore Democratic leadership in the Senate. Accomplishing this objective will likely require Duckworth to defeat Kirk. And I am deeply puzzled that HRC, an organization that prides itself on pragmatism, does not seem to grasp that very simple reality.