- Clay Cope is running as a moderate in a year of extremes
- A half-dozen gay Republicans are candidates for Congress
Clay Cope doesn’t fit the mold of a typical 2016 Republican candidate.
In an election year dominated by angry rhetoric, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the 53 year-old former marketer for a fashion brand on the QVC home-shopping network is running for U.S. Congress in Connecticut as an old-fashioned fiscal conservative, with some socially moderate tinges.
If he wins, he’d also be the first openly gay Republican in Congress in a decade.
Cope insists he has a chance, even with the Tea Party tenor of the national campaigns.
"This is not the Bible Belt," says Cope, referring to the northwestern Connecticut district that includes Newtown, the site of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
Cope isn’t alone, either. He’s one of a half-dozen openly gay or lesbian Republicans running this year for House or Senate seats.
"This is one of the great under-reported stories of this election year," said Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates for LGBT rights.
Arizona’s Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has begun his second bid for Congress, and this time it’s for an open seat. He’s in a primary race for a seat being vacated by Democratic Representative Ann Kirkpatrick’s run for the Senate. That race is rated as a "toss-up" between Republicans and Democrats, according to the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report.
Ben West, a plaintiff in one of the federal lawsuits that overturned Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriages, is running in that state for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Representative Kurt Schrader; in New Hampshire, professor and businessman Dan Innis is running again in a primary against Representative Frank Guinta, who defeated him in 2014. And in California, retired Marine Jacquie Atkinson is running in a primary for the right to challenge Democratic Representative Scott Peters, who only narrowly defeated another gay Republican candidate in 2014. In Maryland, Chrys Kefalas is running as a Republican for the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski.
The last openly gay Republican in Congress was Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who retired in 2007.
Cope doesn’t have an easy path to victory. First, he has to survive a four-way race for the Republican nomination. Then he would have to unseat two-term Democrat Elizabeth Esty.
Cope has an additional challenge: being a Republican in New England, which is akin to being an endangered species. Indeed, Guinta in New Hampshire and Bruce Poliquin in Maine are the only two Republican House members in the six states of New England.
On a chilly night last week, Cope sat over soup at the American Pie Company restaurant in the town of Sherman, where he serves as first selectman -- the equivalent of town mayor -- to make his case.
Interrupted by a procession of well-wishers and friends, many with "atta-boy" hugs and handshakes, Cope makes it clear that he isn’t ready to surrender ground when it comes to conservatism.
He is eager to promote his own self-declared conservative agenda on issues including lower taxes and federal spending, a fair or simplified tax structure, meaningful immigration-law changes and effective border security. And, he also boasts he’s been a protector of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, an issue with particularly poignant meaning in his district.
Cope doesn’t hide his sexuality but doesn’t promote it, either. "I just don’t make an issue of it," he said. And so far, he said, "no one else has."
A crucial ingredient in Cope’s campaign will be how involved the National Republican Congressional Committee and top congressional Republican leaders might become. The committee typically doesn’t play a role in party primaries, and NRCC chairman Greg Walden couldn’t be reached for comment.
The national party, however, is likely to be consumed with protecting moderate districts Republicans already hold, given that they are defending a 246-188 seat majority, their largest in the House since 1928.
Others say that 58-seat majority only amplifies the lack of openly gay members, and that House Republicans should feel pressure to exhibit more diversity. And the NRCC early on has identified Esty’s district as one of its top 26 targets.
Cope has yet to earnestly start raising money, while Esty had $661,239 on hand at the end of 2015, according Federal Election Commission filings. And the district has a Democratic voter enrollment edge.
Still, the seat was held by Republican Nancy Johnson as recently as 2006, and there is a significant number of independents, something Cope says he hopes to capitalize on.
Cope has won three elections as first selectman. In that role, Cope says he has worked to establish a conservative fiscal record on five town budgets, and engaged in decision-making on fire department and security measures.
Cope says he also personally plays a role in protecting Second Amendment rights by processing local gun permits.
The gun issue could end up being a pivotal one. Esty, in a statement, pointed to her efforts to get tighter gun control laws through Congress.
"Thousands of people in our district, including people in Sherman, believe Congress owes it to our families to allow a vote on common-sense gun violence prevention measures like expanding background checks and stopping suspected terrorists from legally buying guns," she said.
While Cope isn’t a shoo-in to win the Republican nomination, he has already won some early endorsements heading to a May 9 state convention. The biggest so far has come from Mayor Mark Boughton of Danbury.
Boughton says he’s worked closely with Cope on local projects and was impressed with his strong community presence and leadership, and sees him as the front-runner for the party’s nomination. He said the Republican Party has to "open our tent" and that if it "continues to engage in discouraging good candidates, including fiscal conservatives like Cope" from running, "then we’ll end up being a dinosaur."
If Cope emerges with the party’s nomination, he could find himself running on the same Republican ticket as Cruz or Trump as his party seeks to hold on to the deeply conservative votes that have made up much of its base.
"I’m not a Tea Partier. I don’t subscribe to their philosophy," says Cope, speaking as he drives around his town for stops at the fire station, the library, and then to check out area roads. As for religion, Cope describes himself as having been converted to Catholicism by his former partner, a fashion designer. He says he tries to follow the church’s teachings, including on abortion.
"I don’t really understand why we as a nation have our government get involved in that issue," he said. "I’m a Catholic. I try to follow my church’s doctrine. But I also respect Roe v. Wade."
He isn’t married to his current life partner, a native of Peru, but he said, "I have every intention of marrying."
Richard Tisei, a gay former Massachusetts Senate minority leader who ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2012 and 2014, said that as Republican presidential candidates scramble for evangelical and conservative backing, some House Republicans have expressed opposition to their leaders supporting gay candidates.
Still, he said many members "who understand it is important for the party to have diversity and also for the party to have members in every region of the country." When he ran, former Speaker John Boehner of Ohio visited his district, as did then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
The Republican Party was formed on the premise that everybody should be treated equally and fairly under the law, Tisei said.
"There are a lot of people who would disagree with the type of social conservatism Cruz and Ben Carson and other candidates like that espouse," he said.