Pennsylvania’s first openly gay GOP lawmaker was defeated in his first primary challenge since coming out of the closet.
Rep. Mike Fleck (R-Huntingdon/Blair/Mifflin) lost to Huntingdon County treasurer Richard Irvin, who ran a “highly organized” campaign as a write-in challenger. The Pennsylvania primary was last week, but the results were delayed as officials hand-tallied votes.
He lost the Republican nomination by 243 votes.
Fleck, who ran unopposed in 2008 and 2010, is navigating uncharted political waters. On one hand, he wasn’t endorsed by the state Republican party, and isn’t conservative enough to avoid a campaign of criticism from Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania (CAP), a “free-market” group that has spent the last few years targeting state Republicans not deemed sufficiently conservative, or so-called RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). But he also didn’t have the platform to secure an endorsement from the Victory Fund, a group that supports LGBTQ candidates. Fleck has also said he avoided such affiliations in an effort to deprive his opponents of ammunition, insisting his sexual orientation didn’t suddenly define his views on policy, nor how he intended to represent his rural, conservative district.
Fleck has been clear that he blames his defeat on bias against him for being gay. He said this primary was about “the gay Mike Fleck.”
According to Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr. (R-Blair), Fleck’s view that he was rejected by state Republicans based on his sexual orientation is not off the mark.
From the Patriot-News:
“[If Fleck] had just gone about his business and people thought he was a homosexual or heterosexual or whatever, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
Eichelberger continued: “A lot of people thought that Mike was a homosexual. He didn’t announce it and it was OK. The feeling from many people is, he put them in a very uncomfortable position.”
Eichelberger, who is affiliated with CAP, made headlines in 2009 when he stated that gay people are “not being punished” because “we’re allowing them to exist.”
A spokesperson for CAP has denied that the organization’s criticism of Fleck has anything to do with sexual orientation, pointing out that the group publicly criticized him before he came out.
Fleck was first elected in 2006. He came out in late 2012 following the election of Rep. Brian Sims, a Philadelphia Democrat who was the first to campaign for state office while openly gay. The difference is subtle but well-recognized in Pennsylvania, a conservative state that hosts two of the country’s few openly gay legislators despite lacking basic LGBTQ legal protections.
When Fleck formally announced his sexual orientation, he tried to assure voters he was still a Christian, and a Republican.
“Coming out is hard enough, but doing it in the public eye is definitely something I never anticipated … I’m still the exact same person and I’m still a Republican and, most importantly, I’m still a person of faith trying to live life as a servant of God and the public. The only difference now is that I will also be doing so as honestly as I know how.”
He said his party affiliation remains strong.
“The Republican party is all about the government needing to stay out of people’s lives,” Fleck said. “I’m not a one-issue person and it’s not a one-issue party.”
The Pennsylvania primary was held on the same day a federal judge overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The following day, Fleck addressed both issues on his Facebook page. Regarding marriage equality, he said he was glad he wore sunglasses while working the polls “so no one would see [him] shed a couple tears of happiness.”
He also doubled down on his belief that his sexuality played a huge part in the race. His statement read in part:
I knew that when I came out this race would be nothing more, nothing less than whether my constituency could wrap their mind around the fact that I was a gay man … This campaign was vicious, it was deceitful and it was personal… I was often left wondering who my real opponent was? It certainly wasn’t Rich Irvin.
As a young man, Fleck—a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University—struggled against his sexual orientation, which he believed at the time was a choice. He suppressed his feelings, and married a woman. From Politics PA:
Through years of counseling, I’ve met a lot of gay Christians who have tried hard to change their God-given sexual orientation, but at the end of the day, I know of none who’ve been successful,” he said. “They’ve only succeeded at repressing their identity, only to have it reappear time and time again and always wreaking havoc not only on themselves, but especially on their family.
The reporter noted that there was “no conceivable political upside” to Fleck’s announcement.
How much more havoc coming out as a gay Republican in Pennsylvania may wreak on Fleck’s political future remains to be seen. Though he was defeated in the Republican primary, he simultaneously ran a successful write-in campaign on the Democratic side—where he won over Irvin by 15 votes.
The unusual situation means that come November, Fleck and Irvin will once again face each other, this time in the general election. Though Fleck will appear on the ballot as a Democrat, he has stated he’d still like to be a Republican.
That is, if they’ll have him.