While Republican Party representatives took heat this week for claiming in fliers that DFL candidate Ashwin Madia had the “wrong demographics” to serve the people of the 3rd Congressional District, they got off lightly with respect to the not-so-veiled undercurrent in their attack on Madia’s “lifestyle.” By larding in mentions of Madia’s household (he’s a renter, not an owner) and his hobbies (he’s not a soccer coach), the tacit insinuation that Madia must be gay is made easier to politely ignore. But it appears to be the real payload behind GOP efforts to point out Madia’s purported, um, difference from the stolid homesteaders of the 3rd District.
“Gutter politics are a gross insult to the good people of our district,” Rep. Jim Ramstad said Tuesday while praising Republican candidate Erik Paulsen for upholding of the “proud tradition of clean politics and ethical campaigns.” But as history demonstrates, there is a long and unadmirable record of flogging a political opponent’s unmarried status as a genteel means of throwing the race into the gutter. And since no accusation is ever actually made, the implication is not really susceptible to rebuttal. It just hangs out there with a wink.
It’s ironic that a tactic like this should arise in a race to replace Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad, who himself was single for most of his congressional career, until he married Kathryn Mitchell in October 2005.
But as I said, there’s a long track record behind this kind of ploy.
The Republican Party of Minnesota’s newest attack line on Madia’s unmarried status (he’s only 30 years old, after all) mirrors that of veteran political operative Karl Rove.
In 1994, Rove commissioned Republican operatives to engage in a whisper campaign against then-Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat. The campaign started by attacking Richard’s status as a single woman and then devolved into criticizing her appointment of several gay and lesbian Texans to government positions.
The circumstances were ripe for Rove to encourage surrogates to ask around if she might be a lesbian, and as Richards defended her position that her appointments were made on merit regardless of sexual orientation, the press began asking her if she was a lesbian. Richards lost the election to George W. Bush, with some political experts claiming the defeat was spearheaded by the whisper campaign.
Janet Napolitano, the Democratic governor of Arizona, faced a similar smear campaign in 2002 when Republicans posted “Vote Gay” posters next to her campaign posters. Harold Ford, Jr., ran for Senate in Tennessee in 2006. His single life resulted in rumors that he was gay — that is, until his Republican opponent, Bob Corker, painted him as a womanizer (and added racial undertones for greater effect).
Are Minnesota Republicans as adept at whisper campaigns as Rove? Probably not. But the term “lifestyle,” employed by party chair Ron Carey, is certainly a loaded term; it’s commonly used in religious-right circles as a derogatory term connoting gays and lesbians.
Two weeks ago marked 2008’s Unmarried and Single Americans Week, promoted by Unmarried America, a nonprofit group that lobbies Congress on issues facing single, divorced, widowed or otherwise unmarried Americans. The group announced last month that 101 million households in the United States were headed by unmarried people. Unmarried America further points out that there are more than 80 members of Congress who are unmarried and that single legislators have been a part of Congress throughout history.
One difference, though: One hundred and seventy years ago, attacking a congressman on the basis of his marital status could get you killed. Calling into question the morality of “some unmarried Congressman” on the House floor ultimately resulted in a duel between two congressmen on the Capitol lawn in 1838. Rep. William Graves of Kentucky killed Rep. Jonathon Cilley of Maine on the fourth shot in an attempt to defend his honor.