As the race for the Republican presidential nomination continues to heat up, especially after the split vote in Tuesday's Iowa Caucus, the field of candidates is starting to narrow -- Michele Bachmann exited after a poor showing on Tuesday, and it looks like Rick Perry isn't far behind.
But one long-shot candidate, the openly gay Fred Karger, has not bowed out. And, to hear him tell it, he doesn't plan on doing so any time soon.
You may have heard about Fred Karger, the former political consultant to the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In the press, he's become known as "the openly gay candidate" - and with good reason: He's the first openly gay person to run for president of the United States.
But Karger's not just gay. He's Jewish. And single. He's never been elected to public office. And, perhaps most confusingly, he's only a moderate conservative. Clearly, in the modern Republican party, which has been dominated by Christian, largely homophobic men for years, the deck is stacked against Fred Karger.
Perhaps because of these distinctions, Karger has hardly been viewed as a viable candidate by national Republican party officials and the media. He's been largely barred from appearing in televised debates alongside the other GOP candidates, including in one particularly well-publicized dust-up in August where Karger technically qualified for a Fox News debate but was not invited to participate.
That "underdog" quality is why Karger is working so hard to campaign in New Hampshire, whose primary election will be held this Tuesday, Jan. 10. Karger has been making his most active push in the New England state, setting up shop last summer by renting a house and mobilizing a huge number of volunteers.
Tonight, it looks like he's finally being viewed as a viable candidate. He'll be speaking alongside Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul's son Rand at the Hillsborough County GOP Dinner 2012 Primary Gala in Nashua, NH.
After New Hampshire, he'll move onto Michigan, where he has already been included on the GOP primary ballot. He has high hopes for participating in a Michigan-based debate before the primary takes place on Feb. 28.
A Serious Candidate?
Despite the campaigning, it's a wonder whether Karger views himself as a serious candidate. And maybe the confusion lies in his somewhat mixed messaging. One minute, he'll assert his supreme viability as a candidate, announcing that he's more than convinced that he is the best person for the job and that he's in the race for the long haul. But the next minute, you ask why he's running, and he responds by asserting: "Someone's gotta be the first openly gay candidate. So I'm sending a message worldwide - I'm appearing with my rainbow pin and saying to conservative, young gay people that they can do anything they want to do. I think that's a great message to send."
He's also made clear that a few little wins would make him happy. He told The Bilerico Project, "I've said from Day 1 that I'm not delusional - that it is a big stretch, for a lot of reasons. But I've also said, 'Let me in one debate. Just one. That's all I ask for.'" He hopes that entry into one debate will allow him validation as a candidate and open the doors to more serious opportunities.
It's not necessarily that Karger is being insincere -- after all, would you take a candidate serious if he told you upfront that he thought he had no chance in hell of making a dent in the race? -- but it is clear that, for Karger, losing the race is not the same thing as declaring his candidacy a waste of time. He wants to demonstrate that an openly gay person can run for president, get media coverage, and attract supporters. It's a wonder, in fact, that he hasn't gotten more coverage for his trailblazing position.
A Lack of Mainstream Support
The media, for one, has seemed to actively ignore Karger's candidacy. Despite some press in The Washington Post, on The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Huffington Post, Karger has been effectively barred from participating in televised debates. Even after making a strong showing in a poll, garnering two percent of the vote, Fox News did not provide for him a seat at the table.
Instances like these have some Karger supporters crying foul against homophobia from within the Republican party. But it's hard, of course, to run as the first openly gay candidate in the United States when when you receive such little support from the gay community. The LGBT blogosphere has written about Karger with a sneer, LGBT Democrats shake their head at a gay man aligning himself with the modern Republican party, and the largest LGBT organizations in the country, which Karger thought would be somewhat supportive, were less than helpful. After all, the politician spent the most recent years of his life campaigning for LGBT rights, most prominently with his work advocating against Proposition 8 in California (Andrew Belonsky detailed that work extensively in a piece last year about Karger).
Karger specifically mentions his disappointment about The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the national organization devoted to endorsing and helping to elect LGBT candidates. The Victory Fund did not endorse Karger's candidacy.
"What a difference they could have made," Karger told The Bilerico Project. I did ask, a little over a year ago, when I went to their leadership conference in Washington, for their support. I asked for the process of an endorsement, and I went through everything, and I had to prod them a little bit to get some of the information. I sent in a 25- or 30- page application, and it took a huge amount of effort, and I never even really formally heard back from them."
Karger says he eventually ran into Chuck Wolfe, president of the Victory Fund, who relayed that the organization thought the best model would be for candidates to work their way up to a presidential campaign.
Officially, The Victory Fund's mission statement clarifies the candidates who would be good candidates for an endorsement. It says:
Victory Fund-endorsed candidates aren't just openly LGBT, they're out to win. Earning Victory's endorsement means a candidate has passed a rigorous vetting process, that they're planning a serious campaign and that they've demonstrated a real path to electoral success.
Despite this, Karger said that his frustration with the organization stands. "I didn't ask for a full endorsement," he said. "I just asked for some kind of support. What will history say when the first openly gay candidate for president is not backed - even passively - by this premier organization?"
Change from Within
Clearly, some of the opposition to Karger's campaign, especially from within the LGBT community, is his identification with the Republican party and the anti-Republican sentiment that's still very prevalent.
Karger is aware of his party's poor track record on LGBT rights. He refuses to believe, however, that there is no place for a moderate, fiscal conservative in the modern Republican party. He points to his stances on immigration reform, pro-choice reproductive rights, and support for full marriage equality to indicate that he's a clear social liberal.
Karger explained, "One of the reasons that I'm in this - and I said this from Day 1 - is that I want to be the conscience for some of these less-accepting Republicans who say terrible things. I'm trying to change the Republican party from within."
Karger is holding out for some showing of support in New Hampshire, and he's optimistic about his chances in Michigan. But even if he emerges from the first wave of primaries without the nomination, he hopes that his campaign has made the path to the presidency easier for openly LGBT candidates.
"There will be an openly gay or lesbian president," he said. "I hope it's in my lifetime."
img Karen Ocamb