The 37-year-old mayor has climbed the ranks of the 2020 Democratic primary with help from a fundraising surge after launching barbs at the vice president, an icon among many Republicans.
Pete Buttigieg is creating a split-screen moment for gay Republicans: The rising 2020 presidential contender speaks passionately about the military, God and efficient government. Some gay conservatives have spoken positively about Buttigieg — a moderate-sounding Midwesterner who married his husband last year — being a leap forward for gay Americans and politicians.
But the South Bend, Ind., mayor’s public squabbles with Vice President Mike Pence are pushing some gay Republicans to fire back at Buttigieg to defend a leader of their party. The dust-up is riling up parts of the right and serving as a high-profile test of how the broader electorate might handle the nation’s first prominent gay presidential candidate.
“What’s intriguing about this particular candidate is that he’s running on really, you could say, the ‘gay conservative platform,’” said Richard Tafel, who helped launch the Log Cabin Republicans and authored “Party Crasher,” a book about being a gay conservative activist. “He’s talking about his military service. He’s talking about his faith. And he keeps saying we should make a moral argument. So on those things that also makes him somewhat attractive to gay conservatives.”
The 37-year-old Buttigieg’s rising stature within the Democratic presidential primary has moved some gay Republicans to defend him on a key front where he’s vulnerable, pushing back against anti-gay attacks and sharing their own experiences. Their outspokenness could help shift conservative views on gay marriage and ultimately help Buttigieg connect with voters who would otherwise never give a gay candidate of either party a second look.
Guy Benson, a prominent conservative commentator who is gay, has jumped into Twitter debates to challenge derogatory statements about Buttigieg. When Republican E.W. Jackson said that a Buttigieg presidency would turn the country into a “homocracy,” Benson commented he was “proud to have voted against this person.”
“I think by just existing and doing his thing, it’s a step forward for the community,” Benson said in an interview. “It just kind of seems normal, which is I think indicative of progress. In terms of him as a candidate I think he is undeniably very bright. I think he is interesting. I think he can be very thoughtful on topics and deeply informed on a number of policy areas.”
Tim Miller, a veteran Republican communications strategist, wrote a personal essay in The Bulwark about the significance of Buttigieg publicly kissing his husband while a presidential candidate.
“What stopped me wasn’t the kiss, but the kissers. They were both men and one of them is Pete Buttigieg, candidate for president of the United States,” Miller wrote. “And that’s why that kiss, to borrow a phrase from one of Pete’s prospective primary opponents, was a ‘big fucking deal.’”
It’s an unusual twist for a range of gay Republicans, from President Donald Trump’s staunchest allies to those usually critical of him and his administration.
“The perspective from which he speaks is one that I relate to, but his opinion on some of the policy issues I differ from greatly,” said Jerri Ann Henry, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. “But I still think I would rather have a debate with someone like him than someone like a Bernie Sanders, who I can’t even figure out where he’s coming from — a millionaire who rails against the 1 percent.”
But there’s hardly a consensus among overall conservatives on Buttigieg. Social conservative activist and evangelist Franklin Graham tweeted Wednesday, “Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman — not two men, not two women.”
Buttigieg’s recent public skirmish with Pence, one of the nation’s most prominent social conservatives who worked with the mayor when he was Indiana governor, has fueled an early backlash on the right. Buttigieg rose to the upper tier of the Democratic race in part by criticizing Pence and Trump last month in a CNN town hall. The broadside, and others that followed, energized Buttigieg’s fundraising and jolted his campaign out of the bottom rungs.
Buttigieg has called Pence a “cheerleader of the porn star presidency,” argued that the vice president is “at best complicit” in a “resurgence of white nationalism in our midst” and pointed to Pence when arguing that being gay was not a choice. In response, Pence said that Buttigieg was only directing his attacks at him to stick out among the nearly two dozen Democrats running for president in 2020.
Many gay Republicans now find themselves defending the vice president, who remains broadly popular among the GOP and distancing themselves from Buttigieg, who is emerging as the most viable gay presidential candidate in American history.
“I think he made a crucial mistake when he started attacking Pence,” said Chadwick Moore, a prominent gay Republican who supports Trump. “They had a close working relationship in Indiana. It was somewhat close. Pence has been nothing but respectful and courteous to him and I think when he came after Pence it made him look opportunistic.”
Tyler Deaton, a Republican strategist, cautioned that Buttigieg’s skirmishing with Pence could alienate a significant number of voters.
“He can’t keep swiping at the vice president,” Deaton said. “I think that the vice president represents about a quarter of the electorate who are evangelicals and they’re not all the same. Every time that he appears to be attacking the president for the vice president’s conservative faith beliefs, there’s a lot of other Americans who are going to hear that like it’s an attack on their own beliefs. And I don’t think that’s persuasive.”
The squabbling has rallied some gay Republicans to Pence’s defense, arguing that Buttigieg is trying to pick a fight with the vice president to cement his bona fides among gay liberals and the broader Democratic community.
Richard Grenell, the Trump administration’s ambassador to Germany who is openly gay, recently said Buttigieg was pushing a “hate hoax” against Pence to elevate his candidacy in the Democratic field.
Asked during a CNN town hall this week about the comments by Grenell, one of the most prominent openly gay Republicans in the Trump administration, Buttigieg sidestepped it with a crowd-pleasing line: “I’m not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it and I’m not going to take it.”
Among gay Democrats, Pence is often criticized as the highest-ranking anti-gay official in the country. Pence was in the national spotlight as governor of Indiana in 2015 for pushing a controversial religious freedom bill that rallied gay Republicans and a wide swath of businesses against it.
Buttigieg, then a relatively unknown mayor even in the Midwest, offered a polite but public rebuke of Pence’s push — in line with the relatively cordial relationship between the two officials, despite their opposing views on some major policy points.
Buttigieg would come out as gay just months after that debate, at age 33. In an podcast interview with former Obama campaign chief strategist David Axelrod, Buttigieg described coming out as “a long journey for me.”
Buttigieg is now an eloquent speaker on the topic, but in that interview he kept restating how he came to acknowledge his sexuality — a sign of his own onetime challenge in discussing the issue. “Because I spent years and… if willpower alone could make somebody straight and as somebody who was able, through willpower, to do a lot of things, I would’ve — especially when you begin to realize you have political aspirations and you want to serve in the military,” Buttigieg said in the March 2017 podcast episode. “At a time I joined the military that was not — you could not be out and serve at the same time. But at a certain point I realized that was really dumb to try and fight this. This is who I am. And I wasn’t getting any younger and I didn’t want to have kind of a double life.”
In interviews, multiple gay Republicans likened the situation facing gay Republicans today to what black Republicans felt during the 2008 presidential campaign when confronted with the prospect of Barack Obama becoming the nation’s first African American president.
Like Buttigieg, Obama’s rise from relative obscurity was partly boosted by the prospect of a civil rights breakthrough. And like with gay Republicans and Buttigieg, black Republicans grappled with the idea of fighting an African American ascending to the highest office in the land while also strongly disagreeing with him on policy stances.
Benson, for instance, said he can’t support Buttigieg because of where he stands on issues like health care or abortion.
“For me, he’s for single-payer health care and did not lift a finger to criticize or depart from the [Democratic] party’s abortion fanaticism, so he’s completely disqualified in my book in terms of owning my vote,” Benson said. “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have my respect. But I cannot vote for him because policy-wise, he is unacceptable to me on key fiscal and social issues.”