Gay candidates' sexuality elicits shrugs from voters

"It's surprising how little it has come up here," said Canon, noting that both Republican Tommy Thompson and the outside groups supporting him have largely declined to try to use Baldwin's sexuality in the campaign. There have been small flare-ups where it's entered the conversation - most notably when a Thompson aide pointed to a video of Baldwin dancing at a gay pride parade to question whether she has "heartland values" - but they have quickly been swept under the rug.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry C. Burden noted in an email that Baldwin's sexuality has helped her in one big way: Fundraising. "[G]roups supporting gay and lesbian rights have been lavishing the Baldwin campaign with a lot of financial support," he said. "That has allowed her to remain competitive with Thompson, who was expected to be the more effective fundraiser."

"I can definitely say that had this happened 20 years ago, it would have been more of an issue," Canon said of Baldwin's campaign. "You see this generational change that's going on right now in terms of gay rights. As that generational change makes its way through the age profile of the voting public, it just gets to be less and less an issue in terms of something that actually harms their chances of winning. I'm sure there are a few voters who do find out she is a lesbian and they are not going to vote for her for that reason, but it has really not been an issue in the campaign at all."

Baldwin's communications director John Kraus said in an email that the "Thompson campaign and the media have brought this up more than Wisconsin voters have on the campaign trail." An August survey by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling found that 64 percent of Wisconsin voters say they are open to supporting an openly gay candidate, including the vast majority of Democrats and independents, while 23 percent say they are not.

Wisconsin voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions by referendum in 2006, by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin. Same-sex marriage is on the ballot in four states this year -- Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.

Asked if he expected his sexuality to be an issue among the largely socially-conservative Republican caucus if he is elected, Tisei noted the GOP House leadership has been "extremely supportive" of his candidacy. He noted that House Speaker John Boehner, who opposes same-sex marriage, has campaigned for him.

"No doubt issues regarding equality will come up during the course of the session, and I'll stand up and try to be a strong voice within my party and within the Congress in general to say that every American should be treated equally under the law," he said. Tisei added, however, that he did not plan to make his sexuality the focus of his time in Washington.

"I'm not planning to go to Washington to be the gay congressman," he said. "I want to go to Washington to be the congressman who happens to be gay. I want to save the country from the economic and fiscal calamity that's going to happen if we don't make changes."