Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Discrimination in the workplace and schools. Unequal benefits for same-sex partners. Marriage equality.
The years leading up to the 2010 midterm election have been an important stretch for gay rights advocates, but you wouldn't necessarily know it by gauging the amount of money invested this cycle by gay and lesbian rights groups and their donors.
The 2010 election cycle was the least prolific cycle for gay rights interests since 1990, with about $850,000 contributed from January 2009 through September, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics. It's a trend that some gay rights advocates attribute to decreases in two key areas: funding and visibility for their top causes.
But others say the sharp decline is a function of the Obama administration and Democratic-controlled Congress failing to deliver on campaign promises to gay rights supporters.
Overall contributions from people and political action committees associated with gay rights interests dropped more than 58 percent from the $2 million invested in the 2006 elections, based on a preliminary analysis of campaign finance records by the Center for Responsive Politics. Consistent with past elections, 95 percent of gay rights-oriented campaign contributions during this election cycle went to Democratic candidates.
While donations from PACs -- such as the Human Rights Campaign and Log Cabin Republicans -- dropped noticeably during the 2010 election cycle, donations from individuals associated with these interests took a nose-dive as well, falling from more than $1.1 million during the 2006 election cycle to just $151,000 so far this go around.
"There are two trains of thought," Andy Szekeres, a Denver-based political consultant and fundraiser who specializes in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, explained to OpenSecrets Blog. "For the major donors, the economy is the main factor. But the smaller grassroots donors are holding back more for emotional reasons."
Szekeres, who recently helmed the finances for Maine's unsuccessful marriage equality campaign, added that some LGBT donors may no longer be feeling the pressure to donate, since the 2010 midterm elections largely focused on the economy, not social issues.
"Fund-raising is so emotional," Szekeres told OpenSecrets Blog. "And if there is no boogie man threatening referendums or repeals, it's much more difficult to reach those emotional donors."
Even some top advocates for gay rights -- such as Tim Gill, founder of the Gill Foundation, and Jon Stryker, founder of the Arcus Foundation -- have given less this midterm election cycle compared to four years ago.
They've continued to open their deep pockets. Based on the Center's analysis of reports processed so far this election cycle, Gill has given $43,100 and Stryker, $82,700. Of those sums, 91 percent of Gill's contributions this cycle have aided Democrats while all of Stryker's contributions went to Democrats.
But during the 2006 election cycle, Gill gave $98,300, all benefiting Democrats, and Stryker gave $115,000, with 92 percent benefiting Democrats, according to the Center's research.
Both the Gill Foundation and Arcus Foundation declined to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, John Aravosis, a Washington-based political consultant and editor of the progressive AMERICAblog, said that while the economy is one variable in play, frustration with a lack of action on gay rights issues is leading some donors -- big and small -- to cut off contributions until progress is made.
"Obviously the economy affects everyone, but people still give to the causes they care about most," Aravosis said in an interview with OpenSecrets Blog.
"The gay community is learning that the Democratic Party won't fight for them," Aravosis continued. "And they already knew that the Republicans wouldn't."
Still, Gary Gates, a scholar with the University of California Los Angeles' Williams Institute for LGBT studies, said that gay rights policy issues simply did not translate to the campaign trail this election cycle.
Gates explained that even though the current Congress has debated several contentious gay rights measures -- such as Don't Ask, Don"t Tell, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act and the HIV travel ban (which it lifted) -- these issues were not central to most congressional campaigns.
Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP-aligned gay rights advocacy group, agreed that the 2010 midterm cycle saw a decline in both contentious battles over gay rights issues and receipts from donors.
"Referendums on gay marriage or non-discrimination laws weren’t major campaign issues like they have been in the past," Berle told OpenSecrets Blog. "But in a lot of cases, our donors also have not had the financial resources to give."
The Center for Responsive Politics is unable to account for every contribution of an individual who identifies as pro-gay rights. Federal rules only call for disclosure information about a donor's employer and occupation.
But if people make significant contributions to political action committees advocating for gay and lesbian rights and also make campaign contributions to politicians who take money from PACs of the same ideological persuasion on gay rights issues, the Center classifies them as ideological donors.
Furthermore, the Center is still processing campaign finance filings related to the 2010 election cycle, so when the final figures are tallied, the sums could be higher. Campaign finance reports covering mid-October through mid-November are due to be filed with the Federal Election Commission on Friday.
From the bad economy to changing campaign priorities to a statement of discontent with Democrats, a number of factors may indeed explain the drop in campaign contributions from gay rights advocates this election cycle. Amid this backdrop, one group decided to raise the stakes for fund-raising among gay rights supporters, calling for a ban on campaign contributions until concrete legislative progress is made.
In response to what he calls broken campaign promises by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats on gay rights issues, Aravosis and AMERICAblog co-editor Joe Sudbay called for a boycott on donations to the Democratic National Committee, as well as Obama's Organizing for America campaign committee -- now a project operated by the DNC.
The November 2009 blog post announcing the "Don't Ask, Don't Give," campaign stated, "it's really more of a 'pause,' than a boycott… only meant to help some friends -- President Obama and the Democratic Party -- who have lost their way."
The boycott, which Aravosis says was meant to "galvanize the community around key benchmarks," asks readers to sign a pledge refusing to donate to the Democratic groups until the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is enacted and Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act are repealed.
Aravosis told OpenSecrets Blog that more than 10,000 people have signed the online pledge.
Cautioning that most of the evidence of any real effects of the boycott on fund-raising among gay rights proponents during the 2010 election cycle is anecdotal, Aravosis said he spoke with many donors feeling disillusioned by the lack of progress on these key issues.
"People keep saying, 'Why should I give to them?'" Aravosis said.
But Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the DNC, has been outspoken in criticizing the boycott, saying that by not contributing to Democrats, gay rights advocates are ultimately just doing Republicans a favor.
"You are being quite effective in turning people against support of the Democrats," Tobias wrote to AMERICAblog. "That, by definition, helps the Republicans."
But Aravosis maintained that Democrats brought the boycott on themselves.
"The DNC and the White House see the gay community as an ATM," Aravosis wrote in response to Tobias. "Well, the GayTM just ran dry."
Aravosis also told OpenSecrets Blog that he has personally received e-mail copies of gay rights donors responding to contribution solicitations from Democratic Party leadership committees "basically saying, 'go to hell.'"
In addition, Aravosis noted that while AMERICAblog helped raise $43,000 for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and Aravosis personally donated $1,000 to the campaign ("more than I've ever given to any politician," he added), he said Obama and many other Democrats should not expect similar support in the future.
"I don't plan on that again," Aravosis said, "unless some miracle happens."
The Don't Ask, Don't Give campaign doesn't explicitly call for a "pause" in donations to all Democrats -- just those not fully in support of their key issues. Donations are still encouraged to candidates who back marriage equality, support the employment non-discrimination act and the campaign's other legislative priorities. And Aravosis admits he is aware of gay rights advocates continuing to financially support individual candidates, "who are actually trying to fulfill their campaign promises."
Some big names have signed onto the strategy -- for instance, David Mixner.
Mixner, as OpenSecrets Blog previously reported, is a prominent gay Democratic fundraiser, who, by the Center's tally, has donated $98,000 of his own money to Democratic candidates and committees in the last two decades. He's also reportedly raised another $30 million for candidates and charity organizations across the country. But since cycle he's only given to a handful of candidates -- all Democrats fully supportive of equality for gay Americans.
"No more excuses. Stop it. Close the checkbooks to those who are not fully on our side," Mixner, who has reportedly raised more than $1 million for openly gay and lesbian candidates, wrote on his blog late last year.
This year, Mixner has given $2,000 to unsuccessful Democratic Senate hopeful Alexander Giannoulias of Illinois, $500 a piece to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and $250 a piece to openly Democratic gay candidates Stephen Pougnet of California and David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
Despite the grassroots uprising against the slow pace of change, one traditional Washington player continues to fill campaign coffers with money from the "gayTM."
HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN CONTINUES TO DOLE OUT CASH
The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group founded in 1980, accounts for more than 80 percent -- $679,800 -- of all gay rights-related contributions this election cycle, according to the Center's preliminary analysis of campaign finance filings. More than 90 percent of HRC's contributions have benefitted Democrats.
But not everyone is happy about the HRC’s dominate position among gay rights advocacy groups.
"HRC has always been the 800-pound gorilla with their massive war chest," Berle, of the Log Cabin Republicans, said. "They did not engender many new allies this election cycle."
Mike Mings, HRC's PAC director, however, said his group favors a diverse field of gay rights advocacy groups.
"We certainly think that more voices are better," Mings said.
But while continuing to dominate political giving among gay rights interest groups, HRC's 2010 cycle contributions are still a far cry from the $1.4 million the group spent during the 2006 midterm election cycle.
"Our overall income has been down in the last three or four years," Mings told OpenSecrets Blog. "The finances more than any political issue have affected our activity."
Some at least partially attributed the lag in federal-level political activity among gay rights interests to an increase in high-profile state-level battles about gay rights issues such as marriage equality fights in Maine and California and controversy over adoption by same-sex couples in states such as Florida, Arkansas and Mississippi.
While Mings acknowledged that gay rights advocates have been heavily invested in California's Proposition 8 ban on marriage between same-sex couples and New York's state senate candidates in hopes of gaining support for legalizing marriage equality in the Empire State, he also proposed a more universal reason for the drop.
"My guess would be that it’s the economy," Mings said.
GAY RIGHTS GROUPS STILL FAVOR DEMS, BUT GAY VOTERS SHIFTING
While the amount of money coming from gay rights interest groups may be changing, the recipients are not. All but one of the top 10 benefactors of gay rights funds during the 2010 election cycle were Democrats.
Stephen Pougnet, the gay Democratic challenger for California's 45th Congressional District who failed in his bid to unseat incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) was the top recipient of gay rights money, according to the Center's research, accumulating more than $25,000 from gay rights interests.
David Cicilline, another openly gay Democratic candidate, ranked No. 2 in funding from gay rights interests, raising more than $19,700. Cicilline won the open seat race for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District.
The only Republican among the top recipients of gay rights funding was Dierdre Scozzafava, a Republican New York State assemblywoman supportive of marriage equality who ran for New York's 23rd Congressional District seat in a 2009 special election. (Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, with the backing of top Republicans like Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) pushed Scozzafava out of the race, although her name still appeared on the ballot. Both candidates lost to Democrat Bill Owens.)
In addition, other prominent politicians such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) all raised more than $10,000 from gay rights interests this cycle.
These amounts pale, however, in comparison to the top recipients four years ago.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) amassed more than $144,000 from gay rights interests during the 2006 election cycle, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) netted $93,000 and former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) raked in another $67,000.
And federal candidates aren't the only political interests eager to accept money from HRC and other gay rights-oriented donors. This cycle, HRC contributed $30,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $15,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – which Mings, HRC's PAC director, attributes to Democrats' proven leadership on gay rights issues.
"We have certainly seen leadership in both houses from Democrats concerned with our issues," Mings told OpenSecrets Blog. "There have been less pro-gay or moderate Republicans in recent years, but we’re hoping to see new leaders emerge."
And with a Republican takeover of the House starting in the new year, Mings insists that bipartisan groups like HRC are willing to work with politicians on both sides of the aisle, especially since several high-profile hyper-socially conservative candidates will not be coming to Washington.
"In a lot of cases, the most anti-GLBT candidates did not end up winning," Mings said, specifically mentioning failed Republican Senate candidates Ken Buck of Colorado, Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada.
Meanwhile, the Log Cabin Republican"s Berle insists that Republican legislators could "help deliver" on gay rights issues like anti-discrimination policies and HIV/AIDS funding. Berle specifically cited Republican Rep.-elects Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.), Charles Bass (R-N.H.), Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.).
"Our allies have really missed the boat by alienating Republicans," Berle said. "Congress did not deliver on gay rights issues… and 31 percent of LGBT voters pulled the lever for Republicans this year."
Berle, citing the percentage figure from exit polling data after the 2010 elections, noted that the number of LGBT voters choosing to support Republican candidates nearly doubled from the 2008 presidential election. At that time, an estimated 19 percent of gay voters supported Republicans.
Szekeres, the Denver-based political fundraiser, said that many gay rights advocates are "shell-shocked" by the 60 seat Republican gain in the House. But, nevertheless, he predicted that many progressive gay rights advocates might become even more apathetic.
"We’re going to see a lot of people sit out if Democrats don’t move the focus to social issues," Szekeres said.
GAY RIGHTS LOBBYING INCREASING DESPITE DECREASED CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS
Partisan divides and fund-raising shortages may have characterized gay rights campaign contributions during the 2010 election cycle for some groups, but gay rights advocates have also been exploring another political avenue for influence on legislative issues.
HRC has done the majority of gay rights lobbying in 2010, and the group has already surpassed its 2009 total of $1.2 million, spending more than $1.4 million on lobbying expenditures through just the first three quarters of 2010, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of federal lobbying reports.
The other major gay rights lobbying client, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, has spent $280,000 on lobbying expenditures from January through September, also exceeding its 2009 total of $240,000.
These two groups have lobbied on a variety of subjects, including health care, taxes, immigration, civil liberties and human rights issues.
HRC's Mings and Log Cabin Republicans' Berles both said that their top priority for the current lame duck session of Congress is the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on openly gay service members.
Center for Responsive Politics researchers Douglas Weber, Carolyn Sharpe and Spencer MacColl contributed to this report.