After early success, a historic candidacy faces a much steeper hurdle

Why We Wrote This

Religion and LGBTQ rights both make up a big part of Pete Buttigieg’s life and historic candidacy. Is the South ready to vote for that particular combination?

Eric Thayer/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg attends a church service at First Baptist Church of James Island in Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 23, 2020.

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Win or lose, Pete Buttigieg has cut a historic path to the highest office.

As the first openly gay candidate in a Democratic presidential race, Mr. Buttigieg and his long-shot bid have become a signifier of how much attitudes have shifted on LGBTQ rights in a party that a decade ago didn’t support same-sex marriage. For all the talk of identity politics, his sexual orientation doesn’t rate a mention at many of his events, which highlight his calm, respectful tone and progressive platform.

“Pete has been competing just like every other candidate, and he’s been judged by the same standards as every other candidate. And that’s a remarkable thing,” says Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

But as the race has moved South, where faith and race intersect with politics, Mr. Buttigieg has found stonier ground. Some African Americans say his sexuality is an issue, though others argue his real stumbling block is his record on racial justice as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

“You’re in the South, the Bible Belt. It’s gonna be relevant. But it’s not as relevant as people are making it out to be,” says Michael Bailey, spokesman for the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina.

On a rainy afternoon, Pete Buttigieg is on his feet inside the fellowship hall of a Baptist church, fielding questions from a mixed-race audience, when an African American woman takes the microphone. 

She introduces herself as an educator and points out that South Carolina ranks 42nd out of 50 states on education. How does Mr. Buttigieg, who is running for president, plan to create equity in public schools, she asks. The audience applauds. 

He thanks her for her public service. “As someone who’s married to a teacher, I feel like I get an education about education every time I come home,” he says, generating a laugh from the crowd. 

What Mr. Buttigieg leaves unsaid, as he speaks of the need to raise teachers’ salaries, is that his spouse at home in South Bend, Indiana, is a man. 

As the first openly gay candidate in a Democratic presidential race, Mr. Buttigieg and his long-shot bid have become a signifier of how much attitudes have shifted on LGBTQ rights in a political party that a decade ago didn’t support same-sex marriage. For all the talk of Democratic identity politics, his sexual orientation doesn’t rate a mention at many of his public events, where he pitches himself as a thoughtful technocrat with a calm, respectful tone and a progressive platform. 

As he tries to build a more diverse coalition in Southern states, Mr. Buttigieg knows that some voters may recoil from the idea of electing a gay president. But for most Democrats, Mr. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation is far from disqualifying; in a crowded early primary field, it was something of an asset for an unknown Midwestern mayor. 

Later that day, Mr. Buttigieg is asked by a voter at a CNN town hall about a 9-year-old boy in Colorado who asked for advice from “Mayor Pete” about coming out as gay. 

“There have been so many moments like that, whether it’s a young person who is wondering where they fit, and this campaign sends a signal to them that they belong,” he says. 

He adds: “I’m under no illusions about the struggle toward equality in this country for anyone, including LGBTQ Americans.” But, he continues, his baritone voice rising a notch, it’s possible “to see those prejudices overcome and to do it in a way that brings more and more people along.” 

The sea change in opinion on LGBTQ equality traces the life of Mr. Buttigieg, who was born in 1982. In a Gallup poll the following year, less than a third of respondents said they’d vote for a qualified gay candidate for office. Today that proportion has swung to 78% of respondents. 

Mr. Buttigieg came out as gay in 2015 in an op-ed in a South Bend newspaper. He was reelected later that year as the city’s mayor with an increased majority. 

Having a young, openly gay candidate in the race makes many Democrats feel good about their brand, says Don Haider-Markel, a politics professor at Kansas University. “He speaks to their inclusiveness.” And if he fails to make the final cut, Democrats may reason, rightly or not, that it wasn’t down to anti-gay prejudice in their ranks. 

When Mr. Buttigieg does speak directly to his identity, unprompted, he ties it into his narrative of public service – a struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his political goals – and his Christian faith. That resonates with the Rev. Colin Kerr, pastor of Parkside Church in Charleston, who has endorsed his candidacy. 

Most politicians genuflect to religion in making their electoral pitch, but Mr. Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, invokes his faith in a far more thoughtful way, says Mr. Kerr. “It’s an exciting dynamic. We see someone who is both a devout Christian and is very open about his orientation.” 

In a 2019 Pew survey, 66% of mainline Protestants said they favored same-sex marriage. Among white evangelicals, though, only 29% did. Attitudes also vary by age: Half of baby boomers said they oppose same-sex marriage. 

Mr. Buttigieg acknowledges the whiplash that some have felt since same-sex marriage became a constitutional right in 2015, the year that he came out. “I recognize that marriage equality in particular was a change that came so fast,” he told Monday’s CNN town hall. “A lot of people were disoriented by it.” 

That conservatism is stronger here in the South, where faith and race intersect with politics, making it thornier ground for Mr. Buttigieg, who has struggled to win over African American voters. Some African American leaders have indicated that his sexuality is an issue, though others have argued his real stumbling block has been political, citing his record in South Bend in handling racial justice. 

For supporters in the LGBTQ community here, Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy is both a marker of progress and a reminder of the resistance that remains. 

“He won’t get enough votes down South, and that’s what I’m worried about,” says Molly Shields, a medical student in Charleston who identifies as queer and says she felt the disapproval of classmates when she told them she was in a relationship with a woman. “There may be more tolerance, but that’s not the same as acceptance.”

Still, win or lose, Mr. Buttigieg has cut a historic path to the highest office. 

“Pete has been competing just like every other candidate, and he’s been judged by the same standards as every other candidate. And that’s a remarkable thing,” says Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. 

Eric Thayer/Reuters
A woman watches through a window as Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (not pictured) speaks during a church service at First Baptist Church of James Island in Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 23, 2020.

Elite education, hardscrabble hometown

The only son of academics at Notre Dame – his Maltese father translated Antonio Gramasci, an Italian Marxist – Mr. Buttigieg has the smooth cadence of a baseball announcer turned professor. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, his rapid ascent on the national stage irks some and dazzles others, though he wears his learning lightly, preferring to emphasize his roots in a hardscrabble city. 

Last April, he announced his run for president in a former auto plant in South Bend that now houses tech startups. At the time, he was 37. “I recognize the audacity of doing this as a Midwestern millennial mayor,” he told the crowd. 

At the end of the speech, a bespectacled man in slacks and a blue shirt climbed on stage and waved. He kissed the mayor on the cheek and embraced him. The hometown crowd knew him as Chasten, the teacher who married Mr. Buttigieg a year earlier at their Episcopal church. 

While Mr. Buttigieg has faced criticism from Democratic rivals for raising money from the ultrawealthy, his campaign also got early support from pro-LGBTQ donors who helped sustain his run in a crowded field.

The 2018 midterms saw an unprecedented number of candidates who identified as LGBTQ. In all, 180 candidates, nearly all Democrats, were elected to state legislatures, including 70 incumbents, according to a study co-written by Mr. Haider-Markel. Ten were elected to the U.S. Congress. Most, though not all, ran in left-leaning urban districts. 

The study found that sexual orientation didn’t appear to make a difference to candidates’ chances of success, controlling for other factors. Still, that doesn’t necessarily apply to Mr. Buttigieg, were he to become the presidential nominee. “A national race is unprecedented,” says Mr. Haider-Markel. “The candidate doesn’t get to choose the district.” 

He says that while most of those opposed to LGBTQ candidates would be staunch Republicans, “there’s a real question if he could get enough support among independents or ... Republicans who switch” between elections. 

On the campaign trail, Mr. Buttigieg has rarely leaned into the historic nature of his candidacy. “I’m not running to be the gay president of the United States,” he has said. 

He is a stoical, even-keeled campaigner, in contrast to the more raucous notes hit by rivals. As a result, his more emotional moments have gotten attention, including a speech in New Hampshire where he reflected on the empowering message that his victory in Iowa sent to young Americans who wondered if they belonged. 

At other rallies, he has pledged his support for LGBTQ equality legislation and ending discrimination against transgender individuals.

“I’m standing right in front of you as a veteran, happily married, running for president of the United States,” he told a rally in Arlington, Virginia. 

Campaigning in the Bible Belt

That combination may not have served Mr. Buttigieg quite as well in South Carolina, where a majority of Democratic voters are African American and religious conservatism runs deep. 

Renard Chisolm calls it an “X” factor, and perhaps not in a good way. 

Mr. Chisolm, who is African American and a member of a Baptist church in Jonesville, says he believes Mr. Buttigieg has a right to his own private life, but that a presidency would put that private life on official display. 

“I don’t know much else about him, so I’m willing to be open-minded and listen to what he’s got to say. But for me at least, a first husband would be hard to stomach,” says Mr. Chisolm. 

In focus groups held here last summer by the Buttigieg campaign that later leaked to McClatchy, some undecided black voters also said they were uncomfortable with a gay candidate – or even discussing the topic. “I don’t like the fact that he threw out there that he lives with his husband,” one man said. 

Still, others resist the idea that African Americans won’t vote for a qualified gay candidate. They say Mr. Buttigieg’s failure to win over more black voters is better explained by his lack of national experience and a mixed record on social justice in South Bend, as well as the stronger outreach made by candidates with longer track records in South Carolina. 

“You’re in the South, the Bible Belt. It’s gonna be relevant. But it’s not as relevant as people are making it out to be,” says Michael Bailey, a spokesman for the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina.

Jordan Ragusa, a political scientist at the College of Charleston College, says Mr. Buttigieg has had few endorsements by African American officeholders, and that counts in a tight primary. Black primary voters tend to be less ideological and are laser-focused on who can defeat President Donald Trump in November. 

And while gay marriage is a no-no for some conservative voters, this attitude isn’t limited to one racial community. “That’s happening with all races and education levels. There’s a generational gap on this issue,” says Mr. Ragusa, co-author of “First in the South: Why South Carolina’s Presidential Primary Matters.” 

Indeed, in Iowa, a middle-aged white woman was filmed asking to retract her vote for Mr. Buttigieg after being told he was married to a man. 

He later told ABC News that he was running to be her president too. “I wish she was able to see that my love is the same as her love for those that she cares about,” he said. 

“Am I here to judge?”

Last Sunday, Cassandra Whaley heard Mr. Buttigieg address worshippers at her church on Jones Island outside Charleston. The next day she drove to his town hall to learn more about his policies on health – she works at a hospital – and youth services. 

When she found out Mr. Buttigieg was gay, Ms. Whaley decided to set it aside and listen. “Am I here to judge? No. Jesus didn’t judge. He gave us parables. He still loved,” she says, as she waited in line with a mostly white crowd. 

Will other voters in her community be as accepting? She pauses. “We’re not there yet.” 

Inside the hall, Mike Tecosky, a banker, sat in the third row. He was undecided on a primary candidate and curious to hear how Mr. Buttigieg proposed to tackle racism. Mr. Tecosky, who is white, says he would be happy to elect a gay candidate, but wasn’t sure everyone else would. 

“It’s 2020. You wouldn’t think that racism exists but it does, so religious beliefs may impact how people feel about Buttigieg,” he says. 

Should Mr. Buttigieg actually become the Democratic nominee, he knows his sexual orientation will be weaponized by opponents. “He does this with his eyes open. He goes in knowing what may happen,” says Ms. Parker. 

She should know. In 2009, she ran for mayor of Houston and was the target of anti-LGBTQ leaflets during a runoff with a Democratic opponent. Ms. Parker, who had already held public office as a married lesbian with two children, won the election and became a high-profile LGBTQ mayor.

Her opponent in that race was black. “The African American community is no different from the rest of America,” she says, noting her success in building a diverse coalition. 

Mr. Haider-Markel says Mr. Buttigieg’s willingness to talk about his struggle to come out as a public figure gives him an authenticity for some voters. He draws a parallel with another historic candidate, President Barack Obama, who ran in 2008 as a unifier and tried not to be defined by race.  

Just as Mr. Obama did in 2008 after a controversy over his pastor’s politics, however, Mr. Buttigieg may be forced to speak more pointedly about his sexual orientation and to offer a path to understanding. “I suspect that at some point if Buttigieg continues to rack up delegates and stays in the race ... then he’ll have to give some kind of speech,” he says.   

Two Midwest marriages

Mr. Buttigieg has spoken about how he suppressed his sexuality because he aspired to a conventional Midwestern life: marriage, kids, public service. “You could be married and have kids, or you could be gay. You couldn’t be both,” he told The Daily podcast in November. 

It took a legal battle in Ohio to flip that script. Jim Obergefell petitioned the Supreme Court after appealing Ohio’s refusal to put him on the death certificate of his late husband, whom he married in Maryland in 2013. The justices ruled in 2015 that Ohio’s refusal to recognize Mr. Obergefell’s same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

Three years later, Pete and Chasten Buttigieg got married. Among the readings at the service was the ending of Obergefell v. Hodgesthe decision that made the wedding possible. 

“I think it’s amazing,” says Mr. Obergefell, the litigant in the landmark case. “I love the fact that he is running, and he’s out there with his husband.” 

Mr. Obergefell, who advocates for LGBTQ rights in Ohio, says while he’s thrilled to see Mr. Buttigieg on the national stage, he also worries about what might be unleashed. “It will embolden people who are our opponents to become louder and more hateful if he becomes the nominee.” 

But he’s optimistic that Mr. Buttigieg can break down more barriers. “One of Pete’s greatest strengths is that he’s openly gay, but he’s also a person of faith and that appeals to a huge segment of society. He served our country. That appeals to a large segment of society.”

Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed reporting from Jonesville, S.C.

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