Once again the Human Rights Campaign ("HRC") is demonstrating why I have ceased all contributions to the organization and stripped the HRC bumper sticker off my car. HRC has endorsed Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois for re-election over his challenger, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth. The apparent motivation was to reward Kirk for his co-sponsorship of the federal Equality Act, but demonstrates HRC amnesia about other things that Kirk has done to the LGBT community. A column in Slate rightly takes HRC to task. Here are highlights:
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.
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.
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.
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.