Can Gay Opposition Help Indiana Democrat Ellsworth?

Indiana’s Democratic Party named Congressman Brad Ellsworth as retiring Sen. Evan Bayh’s replacement on this November’s ballot. The news comes as no surprise: Ellsworth’s long been described as the strongest Democratic contender. That doesn’t mean, however, that the state’s Stonewall Democrats are happy about Ellsworth and his poor gay rights record. Their opposition raises familiar questions. But those inquiries become less recognizable amidst this year’s unique political haze.

Political circles have been chattering about Ellsworth’s inevitability for months. That means that Indiana’s Democratic coalition, including gay group the Indiana Stonewall Democrats, has had ample time to debate Ellsworth’s past politics. And, from a gay perspective, they’re not great: the Congressman has voted against hate crimes, wavered on ENDA, and voiced supported a federal amendment banning gay marriage. Clearly the ISD, which had walked out of a Democratic dinner after Bayh made a confusing joke about “having AIDS,” or aides, couldn’t support Ellsworth as a candidate. And they’re not.

The ISD remained conspicuously silent during this weekend’s vote, and later released a pointed statement explaining themselves: “Our abstention is born, in large part, from the frustration of feint support from the Indiana Democratic Party, which has taken our support for granted too long and shown no interest in developing ISD further.” The party, they say, has gone against their own platform, penned in 2008, which reads:

As a party of the people, we strongly oppose restriction of opportunity to Hoosiers based on their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or economic background.

That same platform insists the party would “encourage” laws against hate crimes, although doesn’t get specific on the details.

The ISD are prepared for criticism: How can they go against a Democrat in such a tight election year? That’s a common argument: gay activists have been tussling for a bigger Democratic state for years. And for years we’ve asked ourselves whether it’s more important to support a party or ourselves. The ISD certainly did, and clarify their point: “We will no longer go along for the sake of “party unity” with a party that too frequently fails to unify with us under its own guiding principles.”

Diehard Democrats will decry this decision, especially since Ellsworth’s trailing more than ten points behind his Republican opponent, Dan Coats. That could change, of course, and, in fact, this gay opposition may help Ellsworth.

Despite Coats’ current lead, Republicans aren’t necessarily popular. A different poll taken last week shows the GOP lags behind the Democrats in popular support: 42% approve of the president’s party, while only 32% approve of the GOP’s actions. As an unapologetic social conservative, Ellsworth could very well use his “family values” to woo Republican voters who would avoid a pro-gay candidate.

Yes, Democrats are fighting for their political lives, but so too are Republicans, who are facing increasingly powerful Tea Party opposition. In this year’s wacky election cycle, a right-leaning Democrat who opposes gay rights could very well prove quite popular with Republicans leery of their party’s current leadership.

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