How a young, gay congressional candidate could shake up the GOP

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
Former city councilman Carl DeMaio is throwing his hat back into the political ring.

SAN DIEGO — It’s January 2015, and a newly elected House member from California walks side by side with his male partner to be sworn into office in Washington. The young lawmaker is a supporter of same-sex marriage. He believes the government should keep abortion legal. He considers himself an environmentalist.

He's also a Republican.

This could be the future for one Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman and recent mayoral candidate who is expected to challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Scott Peters in the state's 52nd congressional district. DeMaio has announced his plan to challenge Peters, but the unfolding sexual harassment scandal surrounding San Diego Mayor Bob Filner could also draw DeMaio into a special election for the mayor's office if Filner is recalled.

DeMaio, 38, doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional Republican. His election could make him the only openly gay GOP member of Congress. (Just two openly gay Republicans have ever served in the House.) DeMaio's views on same-sex marriage and abortion are also at odds with the party platform.

But DeMaio says he’s not interested in making social issues central to his campaign. While open about his beliefs, his run is focused on government accountability and pocketbook-issue reform instead of relitigating the culture wars.

“We ought to take those divisive issues, particularly the social issues, and set them off to the side,” DeMaio told Yahoo News in an interview. “It’s not appropriate for the government to be making decisions for people in their private lives. Instead, we should demand that we look beyond labels to embrace common sense ideas on financial reform and holding these government programs accountable.”

DeMaio's policy views — economically conservative and socially liberal — place him in a libertarian wing of the Republican Party, one that seems to be growing in popularity among young voters. But he's reluctant to put himself in any category.

“I warmly embrace the libertarian label, but I also want to point out that one of my biggest frustrations in politics is that people want to shove one or two big labels on some people that sums who they are and what they believe and what their record has been. I think that’s limiting,” DeMaio said.

Despite his potential of being a maverick if he makes it to Congress, DeMaio is not a fringe candidate. He has early support from the party establishment — the National Republican Congressional Committee, the official party group responsible for electing Republicans to the House, is backing him full force. In July, California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking House Republican, hosted a fundraiser for him in Washington. The invitation branded DeMaio as a “New Generation Republican.”

Given his background, DeMaio seems like just the type of candidate that the soul-searching Republican Party is looking for.

“I actually think that we are going to make headway in the Republican Party on these issues in the coming years,” DeMaio told Yahoo News. “It is going to be a totally different thrust for the Republican Party.”

DeMaio was born in Iowa, and his family moved to Southern California when he was a child. DeMaio’s father left the family and his mother died while he was still in high school. Young DeMaio was sent to boarding school at Georgetown Preparatory School near Washington, and he went on to graduate from Georgetown University.

As a young man in the nation’s capital during Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in 1994, DeMaio plugged into the city’s conservative scene, developing his skills as a policy researcher. He took a job with the Congressional Institute, a think tank that hosts conferences for lawmakers on policymaking.

He went on to found his own group, The Performance Institute, which does similar work and emphasizes transparency reforms and efficiency in government. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, DeMaio established himself as a policy wonk, publishing position papers on government reform for various groups, including the libertarian Reason Foundation based in California.

DeMaio won a seat on the San Diego City Council in 2008, where he focused on several city-based reforms, including a successful push to overhaul the costly pension program for city workers by placing new employees into private, 401(k)-style retirement accounts.

He ran a robust campaign for mayor of San Diego in 2012, losing to Democrat Bob Filner by just 3 percentage points despite a surge in Democratic turnout across the state supporting President Barack Obama's re-election.

DeMaio announced his candidacy to challenge Peters in May.

A DeMaio victory would give a boost to Republicans in California, where the party has been steadily losing ground for two decades. There are currently just 15 Republicans among the state's 55-member congressional delegation, the nation's largest.

According to early poll numbers, DeMaio could be a viable challenger. His mayoral campaign provided him with strong name-ID in the district, a crucial leg up for any candidate challenging an incumbent. A Survey USA poll conducted in June, 17 months before next year’s election, showed DeMaio leading Peters in a hypothetical matchup by 11 percentage points.

As with any political campaign, DeMaio has also made enemies. His support of the pension overhaul enraged organized labor interests, and he won few friends within the gay community when he accepted campaign donations from supporters of the movement to ban same-sex marriage in California. Last year, when DeMaio and his partner, Jonathan Hale, walked together in the San Diego LGBT Pride Parade, some in the crowd booed him along the way.

Publicly, national Democrats dismiss DeMaio as a grandstander. But privately, some express concern that he could be a strong challenger to Peters, particularly since there is little daylight between the two candidates on some of the social issues that have tripped up other Republican candidates in previous races around the country. The election will also occur midway through Obama's second term, an election cycle that historically isn't as hospitable to the president's party.

But since DeMaio's former political foe, Filner, is almost sure to face a well-organized recall campaign in the coming weeks, DeMaio is considered a prime candidate to run in a special election to replace him. Filner has conceded behaving inappropriately but is refusing to resign.

DeMaio told Yahoo News that he would “absolutely” sign a petition to recall Filner, but was coy when asked if he would seek the mayor’s office.

“There are benefits and liability in weighing into that question right now,” DeMaio told Yahoo News. “I’m going to continue to focus on how we can rid our city of the cancer that is Bob Filner. Until he departs that office, our city will be held hostage and our people’s business will not get done.”

In San Diego, the accusations against Filner, (which DeMaio warned about during the campaign against him last year), have dominated the news cycle for weeks. Filner on Tuesday challenged the recall in a written statement, but the campaign is likely to begin as early as this month, forcing DeMaio to make what will surely be a difficult choice.