WASHINGTON -- Republicans made significant inroads among gay and lesbian voters in the midterm elections, with national exit polls for the House races showing that the GOP captured 31 percent of the vote of this group this year, compared to 19 percent in 2008.
The change from the last midterm elections in 2006 was not quite as large but an increase nevertheless. In 2006, 24 percent supported Republicans. Democrats' share of the gay vote rose from 75 percent in 2006 to 80 percent in 2008 and then dropped to 68 percent in 2010. Each year, approximately 3 percent of voters identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual.
"I have been very concerned over these last two years that the connection between the gay rights community and the Democratic Party is in danger of being broken, because I think expectations were set so high as a result of the 2008 election, and people are extremely disappointed," said Richard Socarides, a former assistant to President Clinton and senior White House adviser on gay rights.
Socarides said that the gay community recognizes President Obama has many pressing issues to juggle, but there's nevertheless frustration on his LGBT strategy.
"The president articulated in the early summer of 2009, when he had that event at the White House on the 40th anniversary of [the] Stonewall [rebellion] and had a couple of hundred people in the White House -- he said, essentially, give me two terms, and at the end of eight years, I will have accomplished for you what I said I would," said Socarides. "I think that some people come out of that as, we're not prepared to wait. And some people thought it was a bad strategy because they thought it was going to get harder not easier. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see this change coming in Congress a long time ago. So, I think that we as Democrats have a lot of explaining to do."
More conservatives have been speaking out in favor of gay rights as the issue becomes more mainstream amongst the general public, and Republicans perhaps sense some vulnerability and dissatisfaction with Democrats.
Of course, one of the central figures pushing for marriage equality is conservative attorney Ted Olson who, along with David Boies, argued the case seeking to overturn California's Prop. 8, which bans same-sex marriage. Former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman made headlines recently when he came out as a gay man and signed on to help raise money for the marriage equality fight.
The Log Cabin Republicans have also been taking on a more visible role, bringing the suit arguing that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is unconstitutional. R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, is proud of the fact that 12 of the 17 candidates the group endorsed went on to win their races. He said he believes that the reason Republicans performed better with the gay community in this election is because of the focus on the economy rather than social issues.
"Yes, Don't Ask, Don't Tell should be repealed, so we can have open service," said Cooper. "But if people can't pay their bills or there is concern about their investments, then there could be some overriding points there."
"We want Republicans who respect individual liberty and individual responsibility and champion that as conservatives," he added. "So that's the ideal, right? But knowing there are members of the party that don't fall under that definition -- or, as I like to say, we're working on them -- our guidance was, during this campaign cycle, if you have nothing nice to say about the gay community, say nothing at all. Just shut up. And talk about issues that do affect all Americans, like the economy. Everyone needs a job -- doesn't matter if you're gay or straight."
Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, agreed that the struggling economy and larger political trends likely played a major role.
"There is enormous fear and frustration among people all across the nation, and a factor is a rocky, stalled economy and high unemployment rate," said Nipper. "When the party in power doesn't seem to be making it better, some people make their anger known at the ballot box. Is that the case here? It's tough to know for sure without people actually saying why they voted the way they did."
Socarides also said that some people who identify as gay may have been "voting more on economic issues rather than rights issues."
Among Republican elected officials, there has so far been basically no activity. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) attended a fundraising event for the Log Cabin Republicans in September, but received flack from the religious right for doing so. Besides this move, Republicans have shown little interest in making gay rights a major part of their agenda, and one of the few Republicans supporting the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) -- Rep. Charles Djou (Hawaii) -- lost his seat on Tuesday.
Cooper, who had just returned from meetings on Capitol Hill before speaking with The Huffington Post on Thursday, had more hope for progress. He said that Republican leadership staff had told him the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would likely be taken up during the lame-duck session in the House, although the calendar had not yet been set. He added that his group was pitching ENDA -- which prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity -- to Republicans as a "pro-jobs piece of legislation."
"No one should be denied access to employment," said Cooper, "and that is a conservative talking point. I think we may have some opportunity there to gain some potential support or votes we haven't had in the past. And of course it helps we have some folks who are already in Congress, who are incumbent, who will help message that."
In the next Congress, he said the Log Cabin Republicans would be pushing a tax equity bill, to be introduced by Republican members. He also expected more Republicans and conservative Democrats to support the 2011 defense authorization bill -- which contains a provision to repeal DADT -- when it comes up, since the Pentagon will soon be finishing its review of the implications of open service for gays and lesbians.
UPDATE, 2:33 p.m.: Several readers have written in to point out that the sample size of gay, lesbian and bisexual voters for this poll was small. Liz Goodwin of The Upshot spoke with Hunter College Professor Ken Sherrill, who studies the gay electorate and said that after reviewing the full data, there was "a disproportionate drop in Democratic support among LGB voters compared to Hispanic, black, and young voters." "Though the sample size is still very small and thus there's a large margin of error, Sherrill now says the drop may be attributed to 'dissatisfaction with the pace of change on LGB rights over the past two years,'" added Goodwin.