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Gay Donors Open Wallets On Both Sides Of The Aisle

In politics, money talks. And money from gay and lesbian donors is talking louder than ever in this election cycle.

Special Feature KPBS Election Coverage

That's partly a result of President Obama endorsing same-sex marriage, and it's partly because Republicans are starting to see contributions as well.

That's a huge change from just a few decades ago.

When gays and lesbians started the Human Rights Campaign in the 1980s, they knew that the path to influence in Washington is paved with cash. Write a politician a check, and he's more likely to listen to you. The problem was that back then, most politicians didn't want anything to do with gay people or their money.

"It was almost an embarrassment to be supported by the gay community," says Winnie Stachelberg, who used to work for HRC and is now with the liberal Center for American Progress.

In 1988, the presidential campaign of Democrat Michael Dukakis rejected a $1 million donation from gay donors. By the time Stachelberg became HRC's political director in the mid-1990s, things had not progressed very far. She tried to hand out checks to political candidates, and some of them told her to wait.

"They would count on the $5,000 contribution, but they wanted to make sure that it was dated after the Tuesday where it would appear on a filing," she says. That was so voters would not know the candidates were accepting money from gay donors, and because "clearly attack ads would have been made," Stachelberg says.

Less than 20 years later, times have changed dramatically.

Donations In Full Force

At a Hollywood fundraiser packed with gay and lesbian celebrities last year, A-list actor Neil Patrick Harris proclaimed: "President Obama will be coming out soon!" Then, after a pause, "Out on stage. Calm down, people."

At the same event this year, the gay community's wallets opened even wider, thanks to the president's announcement in May that he supports same-sex marriage.

That statement by the president resulted in a dramatic fundraising spike for him. Over the 72 hours following the announcement, donations to his campaign committees nearly tripled. He took in nearly $9 million over three days, compared with $3.4 million in the three previous days, according to an NPR analysis of campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission. The numbers include contributions from people who gave at least $200.

"People who may have sat on the sidelines are now coming in in full force as a result of the president's and the administration's support for marriage equality," says gay philanthropist and Democratic political activist David Bohnett. "There's no question about that."

One of the biggest changes in money from gay donors these days is that it's flowing to both parties. The man who led President George W. Bush's re-election campaign, Ken Mehlman, is now a major fundraiser for gay causes. Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter was recently married. And a top supporter of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has started a superPAC to back Republican candidates who favor same-sex marriage.

That donor, Paul Singer, said at a 2010 fundraiser, "I believe a generation from now, gay marriage will be seen as a profoundly traditionalizing act. It will have channeled love into the most powerful social institution on Earth — marriage itself."

Shoring Up Support

So far, only one Republican in Congress has endorsed gay marriage: Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Christian Berle of Log Cabin Republicans says other GOP lawmakers are on the brink.

"We have been in conversations with a number of members who are looking to move in that direction," he says. "There's one [for whom] it's most likely a matter of months, not years."

There is a chicken-egg question here: Does money flow to politicians because they take pro-gay positions? Or do the lawmakers take those positions because they hope that will bring a flood of gay donors?

Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress says the dynamics aren't that simple. A big check can make it easier for a politician to take a controversial position — "when you say that there will be support after you take this vote and it may be tough for you, [but] we will be there to support you," she says.

That's what happened in New York state last year. Four Republican state senators helped same-sex marriage over the finish line. National groups opposing gay marriage raised money vowing to unseat those lawmakers. And wealthy gay donors stepped up with millions for those Republican politicians to defend themselves. The lawmakers will find out in November whether they'll survive.

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