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How The Human Rights Campaign Is Helping the GOP to Retain the Senate

03/25/2016 09:46 am ET | Updated Mar 27, 2016
Jason Kempin via Getty Images

In the past 24 hours, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest LGBT group, has come under intense fire on social media, including from many transgender people, for its lack of a strategy in combating the rapid passage of a heinous anti-LGBT law in North Carolina which strips existing LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances in the state and bars transgender people from using public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

But that criticism has followed an even more intense, week-long pummeling of the group on social media as well as from pundits and commentators, because of the group's very curious endorsement earlier this month of Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican whose defeat in November is critical to the Democrats winning back control of the Senate.

Kirk, in a very tough re-election, has come out in support of The Equality Act, a sweeping federal anti-discrimination bill protecting LGBT people, and had voted to end "don't ask, don't tell." But Kirk has only earned a score of 78 percent out of 100 percent from HRC, while his opponent, Democratic House member Tammy Duckworth, has a score of 100 -- in addition to a real shot at taking the seat and handing Democrats the Senate. David Nir, political director at Daily Kos, called the endorsement as "appalling as it is embarrassing," and "pathetic and stupid." Mark Joseph Stern at Slate acknowledged the "long game" HRC may be playing in backing GOPers who vote pro-gay, but nonetheless drew the line at allowing the terribly anti-gay GOP leadership to retain the Senate this year, observing that HRC "does not seem to grasp...simple reality."

At The New Republic, Eric Sasson rightly pointed to HRC's "serious diversity problem" per an internal report that leaked, and to the optics of backing a white male Republican with a meager score over a woman of color and a combat veteran who lost both of her legs in the Iraq war -- and who has a perfect score. Chris Geidner at Buzzfeed had obtained the internal report last year, which called HRC "exclusionary," "sexist," and "homogenous." This endorsement certainly lent more credence to that.

The critics and the social media blitz drew some blood. HRC, which these days rarely reacts to criticism, responded with a defensive piece written by its president, Chad Griffin, online. Griffin said that HRC would be "short-sighted" to endorse Duckworth over Kirk because Kirk has been a "strong ally in the Republican Party" and claimed that "because bills in the House and Senate have differed, comparing his rating to a House Member's is apples to oranges."

That last line is preposterous because it's not the way any group scores members of Congress. An A from the National Rifle Association in the House -- the equivalent of HRC's 100 percent -- is not the same as a C -- 78 percent -- in the Senate. HRC is saying that a 78 is the same, if not better, than a 100 in the House. But this is the first time we've ever been told that by HRC. The reality is that HRC is spinning because there's grade inflation for Republicans.

In an email exchange, I asked Olivia Dalton, HRC's senior vice president of communications, if HRC would like to see the Senate return to control by the LGBT-friendly Democratic Party. She replied that the group wants a "pro-equality majority" but said that "Democrats cannot pass legislation advancing LGBT equality on their own," adding that "we need at least 60 votes in the Senate to do that."

But surely the only way to ever get a vote on something like the Equality Act will be if Democrats have control of the Senate. Let's not pretend Mitch McConnell will ever allow a vote on it.

"We aren't under any illusions about Mitch McConnell," Dalton replied, "but despite him, we have had four votes connected to LGBT equality this year." She then pointed to four votes since early 2015, three of which were modest pro-LGBT amendments to larger bills that received some GOP support but failed because they didn't get 60 votes, and one that passed on a voice vote, meaning no recorded vote.

It's hard to fathom that anyone who supports full equality believes these meager attempts are really worth keeping the Senate in the hands of the GOP. It's not the '90s, when individual senators had more clout and we could pass legislation with simple majorities. Mitch McConnell changed the way the Senate operated -- and he'll be the beneficiary if Kirk wins. HRC, often in that '90s time warp, has worked against the best interests of the LGBT community as recently as 2014, when the group was still supporting the narrow Employment Non-Discrimination Act, with its terrible religious exemption, while every other national LGBT group -- except the Log Cabin Republicans -- had joined the 21st century and pulled support.

The simple truth is that in 2016 in Illinois we don't need Mark Kirk -- he needs us. Kirk is in a deep blue state and he absolutely must support full LGBT equality in order to win. His coming out for the Equality Act is not brave; it's about his own survival. And the first vote he'll take upon being re-elected will be a cowardly one to make the anti-gay McConnell (with an HRC score of 0) the Senate Majority Leader again.

There's no question that the Democrats' path to taking back the Senate very much includes defeating Kirk, who is in the bluest state among those where GOP senators are embattled. So HRC's action does raise questions about how committed the group really is to seeing the Democrats take back the Senate, and if it perhaps has conflicting interests. Daily Kos's David Nir surmised that HRC's Kirk endorsement is all about keeping "donations flowing from corporations and wealthy gay Republicans," and he may be on to something.

One only has to look at the website where Chad Griffin posted his response to get a feel for HRC's aims. Rather than posting the response on its own website or on a progressive or LGBT site (or on Medium, where Griffin later posted a response to the North Carolina debacle), Griffin wrote his defense of the Kirk endorsement on the Independent Journal Review, which was founded by former Republican Party staffers Alex Skatell and Phil Musser, and has been described by GOP consultant Alex Castellanos as a cross of "RedState with BuzzFeed." The New York Times described it as having "a steady stream of articles critical of President Obama and other Democrats."

Skatell, now 30, started the first Facebook page for the Republican Governor's Association (RGA) when he was 22. One major donor to the RGA is the GOP New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer -- who also happens to be a major donor to HRC. Singer's foundation and the Daniel S. Loeb Foundation committed $3 million to the group, incurring criticism because Singer makes a lot of his money from a "vulture fund" that sues poverty-stricken countries for their debt.

Singer has a son who is gay and worked on the push for marriage equality in New York, credited with helping persuade four Republicans to vote with Democrats to pass the bill. But Singer has his priorities: He bankrolled the campaigns of some of the most anti-gay GOP Senate candidates who won in 2014, like Joni Ernst of Iowa and Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia, and he became a key fundraiser for the presidential campaign and super PACS of anti-gay Marco Rubio, who promised to overturn the Obergefell ruling. In 2016, Singer's firm, Elliott Management, is the third largest contributor to the RGA, which is working this year to re-elect none other than Pat McCrory, the North Carolina governor who this week signed the most anti-LGBT law we've seen.

Singer also has been among those leading the anti-Trump effort among Republicans, which doesn't look very promising right now. Looking at the possibility of Donald Trump winning the GOP nomination, it's no secret that GOP leaders have focused on putting all of their efforts on retaining the Senate. Surely Paul Singer is critical in that effort, bringing hard and steady pressure to bear wherever it is necessary. It's not a surprise, then, that the American Unity Fund, which Singer founded, has been tweeting and retweeting support of HRC for its endorsement of Mark Kirk, in what seems like an attempt to counter the many LGBT people who are expressing their anger and to whom HRC believes it is not answerable.

If HRC is not answerable to LGBT people, however -- and its president, Griffin, rarely even gives interviews to LGBT media, while speaking often in the larger media -- exactly to whom and what is it answerable, and what are its true priorities? One thing is clear: HRC doesn't speak for the LGBT community, and the sooner that politicians and those in the media grasp that, the smarter they will be.

Michelangelo Signorile's book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, is due out in paperback with a new afterword, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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