Not yet a presidential candidate, Vice President Joe Biden will have a prime perch to appeal to LGBT voters when he headlines a glitzy national gala. Yet it may be too late to win over influential gay Democrats already committed to Hillary Rodham Clinton should he join the 2016 Democratic contest.
At the Human Rights Campaign's sold-out soirée Oct. 3 in Washington, it's Biden who will get top billing. In a way, Clinton will be his warm-up act; she'll speak to the group's board and staff in the morning, but won't be on stage for the star-studded dinner.
Gay and lesbian voters and their allies represent a natural base of support for Biden, who won accolades from the community by backing gay marriage ahead of the 2012 election and became the highest elected official to support what was then a highly charged political issue. President Barack Obama followed days later, leading activists to muse with a touch of irony that it took an older, white male to get the first black president on board with a modern civil rights issue.
"Vice President Biden has stood up for the rights of all Americans to live their lives free from discrimination and fear throughout his remarkable career," Chad Griffin, Human Rights Campaign president, said in announcing the keynote speaker. Joining Biden onstage will be actresses Allison Janney and Ellen Page, along with Jason Collins, who was the NBA's first openly gay player.
The prominent gay rights group hasn't endorsed yet in the 2016 race, but it plans to be engaged in the primary.
Clinton, too, has a long history on gay rights, and the Human Rights Campaign praised her this week as a "tireless champion" for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people across the globe. Clinton's LGBT supporters point to a 2011 speech she gave as secretary of state fervently declaring that "gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights."
As she competes for the Democratic nomination, Clinton has actively courted gay and lesbian voters. She's featured gay couples in her advertising and raised LGBT issues at town halls. When the Supreme Court ruled for gay marriage, her campaign swiftly changed its logo to a rainbow-colored H. Next month, she'll attend a fundraiser hosted by openly gay Houston Mayor Annise Parker.
In turn, Clinton has won financial support from many of the openly gay bundlers who raised huge sums for Obama. In interviews, half a dozen of those supporters insisted none of that support would drift to Biden.
"Every single Clinton supporter I have spoken with about this question remains firmly committed and dedicated to her campaign," said Dana Perlman, a former Human Rights Campaign board member who raised more than $500,000 for Obama in 2012. Added Christine Quinn, New York's first openly gay city council speaker, "You can't shake our support for Hillary."
Biden's tough task in winning over gay Clinton supporters mirrors the broader challenge awaiting him if he enters the race: Half a year into the presidential campaign, many of the Democratic Party's top players have already placed their bets.
"People make commitments, and it's very hard to undo commitments," said Steve Elmendorf, a veteran Democratic strategist who is fundraising for Clinton. "They also think Hillary's going to win."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's nearest rival in the Democratic primary, has also sought to highlight his support for LGBT rights. At Liberty University this month, he pointedly noted that "I believe in gay rights," drawing a lukewarm response from the crowd of Christian conservatives.
As Biden considers whether to run, his political advisers have quietly reached out to major LGBT donors to gauge support.
The super PAC urging him to run, Draft Biden, has made a more explicit pitch, asking gay and lesbian Democrats to proclaim their support. Its finance chairman, former Obama bundler Jon Cooper, said a handful of other gay bundlers have pledged to support Biden but won't do so publicly unless he announces, so as to avoid unnecessarily offending Clinton.
Erik Ramanathan, an Obama bundler who is backing Biden, predicted that if Biden joins the race, LGBT Democrats will run the gamut. Some might stay with Clinton or donate to multiple candidates.
"A lot of people already raising for Hillary will defect if the vice president enters the race," said Ramanathan, who sits on the Democratic National Committee's finance committee. "People who have been active in the LGBT civil rights movement for decades remember stances he took in the Senate."
In Congress, Biden supported hate crime and workplace discrimination bills. He also fought legislation by then-Sen. Jesse Helms and others seen as hostile to gay rights.
Gays and lesbians form a powerful voting bloc in the U.S., and exit polls suggest they vote at higher rates than the overall population. An analysis by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law showed that 3 in 4 gay or bisexual voters backed Democrats in 2014.
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