Gay candidates' sexuality elicits shrugs from voters

Republican congressional candidate Richard Tisei campaigns in Gloucester, Massachusetts in July.

Congressional candidate Richard Tisei is both gay and a Republican. In his battle to unseat Democratic Rep. John Tierney in Massachusetts' sixth district, he says the latter has been the bigger issue.

"Being gay in Massachusetts isn't a problem," Tisei said. "Being Republican is much more of a hurdle."

Tisei, who is vying to become the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress, isn't the only gay candidate who could make history. In Wisconsin, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin could become the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. In Arizona, Democrat Krysten Sinema is vying to become the first openly bisexual person elected to Congress.

The candidates say that that, for the most part, their sexuality has not been an issue in their campaigns. Tisei, who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, said it has actually been somewhat helpful, since it's helped him combat Tierney's characterization of him as a right-wing extremist. "In a way it helps differentiate myself form the caricature that they're trying to paint," he said.

Fred Sainz of The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights group, said that he views the relative lack of discussion of LGBT candidates' sexuality as "a measure of progress."

"In the past, definitely in 2004 when George Bush ran his entire reelection campaign using the gay issue as a wedge issue, it would have been more of a problem," he said. "We've come a long way in a relatively short period of time."

Added Sainz: "It speaks to the fact that LGBT people are now part of the mainstream of American society, and their sexuality should really not be a factor in whether they should be a member of Congress."

There are now four openly gay members of Congress, all Democrats: David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Jared Polis of Colorado and Baldwin. Polis and Cicilline are expected to be reelected, while Baldwin, who represents liberal Madison, will likely be replaced by another openly gay politician, Mark Pocan. (Frank, who is retiring, will be most likely be replaced by Joseph Kennedy III, who is straight). There are also two other openly gay candidates seeking House seats: Mark Takano of California and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York.

In Wisconsin, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor David Canon, Baldwin's sexuality "certainly has not been an issue in the campaign in any big way."