WASHINGTON (AP) — Carl DeMaio figures he must be doing something right if both social conservatives and members of the gay rights community oppose him.
“It means you’re right in the middle where the American people are,” DeMaio, who is gay, said in a recent interview.
Running for Congress in a district almost evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents, DeMaio gives the GOP one of its best chances for winning a Democratic-controlled House seat, this one in the San Diego area.
But the gay rights community leans heavily Democratic, and the Human Rights Campaign endorsed the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Scott Peters. Meanwhile, the socially conservative Family Research Council and others weighed in during the primary with mailers, robocalls and radio ads to boost the prospects of another Republican. The conservative groups are expected to stand down for the general election but haven’t made a firm commitment about their plans.
Across the country, the two other gay Republicans, Dan Innis of New Hampshire and Richard Tisei of Massachusetts, have so far avoided being targeted by social conservatives as they prepare for September primaries.
Innis faces former Republican Rep. Frank Guinta. Tisei is unopposed. Both were endorsed by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which called them “pragmatic and visionary leaders” whose election would “shatter a glass ceiling for the Republican Party.”
The organization said DeMaio never sought its endorsement, which is a necessary first step to getting it.
DeMaio said the story is more complicated, dating back to 2012, when the group declined to endorse him when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of San Diego. He said they also gave insider campaign information to his opponent.
Steven Thai, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, rejected DeMaio’s claim about leaked campaign information and said DeMaio simply didn’t qualify for an endorsement.
The back-and-forth underscores the bitterness that exists between DeMaio and some in the gay community.
“I’m not going to let their partisan politics deter me from what I see as the important role I can play, which is to be present in the Republican Party, to go to hard-to-win audiences, the social conservatives, and stand and say, ‘I am openly gay, I am proud. And it shouldn’t matter who I love. Let’s talk about the issues that united us, not divide us,'” DeMaio said.
DeMaio generally avoids discussing his sexual orientation or other social issues, but he seems to have taken some lessons from his mayoral campaign, when he was criticized for being too dismissive of their importance. An early campaign ad this year featured DeMaio and his partner in a local LGBT pride parade.
The advertisement caught the attention of the National Organization for Marriage, which called DeMaio a “determined activist who will rip traditional values from the Republican Party.”
The last openly gay Republican to serve in Congress, Jim Kolbe of Arizona, said much has changed since he came out in 1996. He believes most Republicans don’t have a problem with an elected official being gay. Yet he said he understands why DeMaio prefers to focus on taxes, jobs and other pocketbook issues.
A candidate’s sexual orientation “is pretty much a peripheral issue for most people,” Kolbe said.
DeMaio built his reputation with his work as a member of the San Diego City Council on pensions and other fiscal issues. He finished second in the primary and will face Peters in the fall. FEC records show social conservative groups spent about $156,000 to support another Republican.
“It’s totally in opposition to Carl DeMaio, but I’ll tell you, it’s equally in opposition to what the Republican leadership did, and that is go into an open primary early for a candidate who doesn’t support the platform,” said Connie Mackey, president of the Family Research Council’s PAC.
Republican leaders such as fellow Californian Rep. Kevin McCarthy moved early to demonstrate their support for DeMaio and hosted fundraisers for him.
“The message was sent by San Dieagans who said they don’t want a Republican Party fixated on social issues,” DeMaio said. “They want someone like me, who is going to focus on job creation and government accountability.”
The opposition from national gay rights groups has not been as confrontational.
Fred Sainz, a vice president for the Human Rights Campaign, said its backing of Peters was more of a statement about Peters and his support of gay rights issues.
Still, Sainz noted DeMaio’s reluctance to discuss social issues. “To reject social issues as a platform is in part the denigration of LGBT people because it’s not an issue for us, it’s our lives,” he said.
DeMaio was endorsed by the Log Cabin Republicans, which calls itself the largest and oldest organization representing gay conservatives. The group’s executive director, Gregory T. Angelo, described DeMaio’s candidacy as a “game-changer.”
At 15, DeMaio lost his mother to breast cancer. He says his father left the family before her death. He spent his high school years attending a Jesuit boarding school near Washington, D.C., and went to Georgetown University.
When asked if he ever considered being a Democrat, DeMaio replied: “No, I’ve always believed in personal freedom.”
Democrats have noted that during the mayoral contest, DeMaio was booed at some LGBT-centric events. Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University, said the lack of support from the local gay community is more about DeMaio’s style than about any stance he has taken on particular issue.
“He’s been a flamethrower,” Adams said. “It makes it very difficult to have that crossover appeal.”