Amid the hoopla over the blue wave in November, not everybody noticed the simultaneous rainbow tide that swept record numbers of LGBT candidates into office. But Pete Buttigieg did.
The Harvard-educated Hoosier with a husband already has made history as the first gay candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination to register serious poll numbers, setting himself apart from a field crowded with women, people of color and even a few straight white guys.
Credit for the Buttigieg buzz has been attributed to any number of factors — his crossover appeal as a Midwestern mayor, his military service, his Episcopalian faith, his proficiency in seven languages — but being gay hasn’t hurt in a party dominated by identity politics, and it has probably helped.
“It is absolutely a benefit to him that he is LGBTQ in the sense that it has provided him with a life experience and perspective that is different from a lot of Americans,” said Elliot Imse, spokesman for the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “It opens their hearts to him in a different way than they would with a white, straight, cisgender male candidate.”
The Victory Fund hasn’t officially endorsed Mr. Buttigieg, but it is getting close as he continues his meteoric rise in polls.
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has become the toast of Hollywood and Washington since leapfrogging former Rep. Beto O’Rourke for third place in the Emerson poll. The latest survey shows Mr. Buttigieg trailing only the party’s two heavyweights, Sen. Bernard Sanders and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
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Mr. Buttigieg certainly has been forthcoming about his sexuality on the campaign trail. He told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow how he struggled with coming out, headlining gay groups’ fundraisers and showcasing husband Chasten Buttigieg in appearances and speeches.
“He makes me a better candidate because he makes me a better person. That’s how a good marriage works,” the candidate told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres as his spouse watched from the audience.
His strong fundraising — $7 million in the last cycle — and high-profile fans, including Obama administration National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice and Hollywood celebrity Ryan Reynolds, have his supporters increasingly confident that he won’t be a flash in the pan.
“Very early on in the campaign, LGBTQ people became very excited about Mayor Pete’s candidacy, not because they thought he was going to win, but because it was so important to have an LGBTQ voice on the presidential debate stage,” Mr. Imse said.
In the past two months, “we’ve seen a shift in excitement about his candidacy to getting behind him in fundraising dollars, in vocal support to help him get to the finish line and become the Democratic presidential candidate,” he said.
Donald P. Haider-Markel, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kansas, said Mr. Buttigieg represents the next step in a trajectory that has increased the number of gay candidates in each election cycle since 1992.
Last year, 244 known LGBTQ candidates won office with a victory rate of 56.5%, capturing two Senate seats, seven House seats and two governor posts, according to the Victory Fund.
“Now you’re starting to see it pay off with these higher-level offices, and it’s culminating now in having a real contender candidate for the presidency,” said Mr. Haider-Markel, author of “Out and Running,” a 2010 book about gay candidates.
Part of Mr. Buttigieg’s appeal lies in his perceived electability. As a red-state mayor, he is seen as someone who could appeal to moderate and even Republican voters, while his generally progressive positions and sexuality prevent him from being pegged as too centrist.
That’s the theory, but Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer isn’t sure voters will buy it. He accused the mayor of veering to the left once he reached the national stage.
“He portrayed himself as much more moderate when he was mayor. I mean, he was in a city with Notre Dame,” Mr. Hupfer said.
Not everyone on the left is a Buttigieg fan. Some liberals have complained that he is stealing the thunder of women and ethnic minority candidates for the White House, and others have asked whether Mr. Buttigieg is “gay enough.”
Slate’s Christina Cauterucci cited the “frustration that the well-qualified female and black candidates in the race are getting shoved aside for another white guy” and said Mr. Buttigieg “would register on only the most finely tuned gaydar.”
“Why Pete Buttigieg is bad for gays,” headlined an article in The Outline by Jacob Bacharach, who argued that the mayor was too “palatable.”
The mainstream media swung back by insisting that Mr. Buttigieg was “plenty gay,” as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it, while Washington Post assistant editor Drew Goins took issue with gripes about how the candidate — an Afghanistan War veteran and a Navy Reserve officer — can pass for straight.
“To argue that a gay man does not qualify as sufficiently diverse because he is not effeminate enough is like arguing a person of color doesn’t add anything to a field of white candidates because her complexion is not dark enough,” Mr. Goins said.
Lest there be any doubt about his gay cred, Mr. Buttigieg picked a fight this month with Vice President Mike Pence at the Victory Fund’s annual brunch by saying his marriage made him a better man and that “yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”
“And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
Mr. Pence, who said the two had a “great working relationship” during his tenure as Indiana governor, chalked up the attack to politics.
“But I get it. It’s, look, again, 19 people running for president on that side in a party that’s sliding off to the left,” Mr. Pence told CNBC’s Joe Kernen. “And they’re all competing with one another for how much more liberal they can be.”
Back in South Bend
Mr. Buttigieg made his inauspicious political debut at the age of 26 with a 2010 defeat in his bid for state treasurer, a race he lost by 24 percentage points. A year later, he won the first of his two terms as mayor. He didn’t come out as gay until 2015, when he announced it in an op-ed for the South Bend Tribune.
Elizabeth Bennion, a professor at Indiana University at South Bend, said his being gay “was not at all part of his [first] campaign and was not raised until his reelection campaign,” when it received little attention.
“It didn’t seem to have that much impact,” said Ms. Bennion, who moderated his campaign debates. “And it still wasn’t something he focused on and talked much about. I think at the national level it has become more of an issue as people dig into the biographies of the candidates and as the candidates realize everything about their lives will be public, so they need to shape that narrative.”
What if he were straight? “It very well could be that with his background, if he wasn’t gay, that he would be less appealing. I would say probably he wouldn’t have shot up so quickly,” Mr. Haider-Markel said.
That said, not every gay candidate has Mr. Buttigieg’s political gifts, including his ability to transform an admittedly tricky issue into a potential game-changer.
“The way he handles it in interviews and on the campaign trail really humanizes him, and it’s difficult for other candidates to replicate that. He’s made it an asset,” Mr. Haider-Markel said. “He’s able to get people excited. People are interested in learning about him because of that story.”