Fred Karger, the first openly gay Republican candidate for president, released a series of TV campaign ads prior to Utah’s Republican primary elections. Judging by the ads, one might think Karger wasn’t running against GOP candidate Mitt Romney, but rather against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One 58-second ad leads in with dramatic music, while Karger references a recent study that found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormon youth who feel rejected by their families are eight times more likely to commit suicide. As Karger speaks, the commercial flashes images of troubled youths—one holding a gun to his head, another with an empty pill bottle in hand and one hanging from a noose.
“We need to stop the suicides, end homelessness and, once and for all, to stop the hate,” Karger says on the video.
While local LGBT advocates agree with the message of ending LGBT suicide and homelessness, they also wish Karger would stop spreading the message using inflammatory dirt-slinging tactics. But Karger, who has worked for three decades for numerous Republican campaigns—including both of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns, for which he did opposition-research work—thinks that calling out the LDS Church’s involvement in same-sex marriage initiatives across the country requires a no-holds-barred approach.
“It’s a very powerful, hard-hitting commercial, one I don’t do lightly,” Karger says. “But the word needs to get out there.”
Karger has been waging his crusade against the church’s electioneering since he helped co-found Californians Against Hate in 2008 to battle efforts to repeal California’s amendment allowing same-sex marriage. Keeping an eye on campaign money coming from out of state, Karger first drew attention to large donations coming from the LDS Church and helped a Wall Street Journal reporter break the story of the church’s involvement in the election.
Karger further upped the ante by creating MormonGate.com, a website
that provides information on the church’s electioneering efforts. He organized boycotts of major Prop 8 donors in Utah and even filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission in 2008.
In 2010, the commission found the church guilty of not disclosing the sources of campaign donations made in the final push in the weeks before the Prop 8 vote that successfully repealed same-sex Californians’ ability to marry.
In April 2011, Karger largely self-funded a campaign for the presidency that he acknowledged from the beginning was more about sending a message than winning—or even coming close to winning.
The message Karger sent was twofold: that a gay, Republican candidate could start a dialogue about how the party views gay members, and that the LDS Church and, by proxy, LDS presidential candidate Romney, should be held accountable for campaigning against same-sex marriage.
Since Prop 8, Karger has renamed Californians Against Hate into a group with a more national focus, Rights Equal Rights. After the 2012 presidential campaign winds down, Karger plans to refocus Rights Equal Rights. He wants it to serve as a watchdog organization, on the lookout for campaign-finance irregularities in the National Organization for Marriage’s campaign in support of four same-sex-marriage election proposals to be voted upon in the fall election.
In Minnesota, a state constitutional amendment will be voted on to outlaw gay marriage, while in Washington and Maryland, same-sex marriage foes pushed by the National Organization for Marriage are seeking to use referendums to repeal previously passed laws that authorize same-sex marriage in those states. In Maine, pro-LGBT advocates have put same-sex marriage on the fall ballot.
In all these races, Karger says, the LDS Church will play a role. Three of the National Organization for Marriage’s board members, he notes, are LDS.
While Karger believes that the church will be less visible in its involvement to defeat same-sex-marriage amendment proposals because he says they don’t want publicity affecting Romney’s presidential campaign, he says they will be involved enough that he will keep pressing his attack.
“I want to make it too hot for them by boycotting major donors and by singling out the Mormon church,” Karger says.
But while Karger’s controversial commercials and tough campaigning may win him cheers from LGBT advocates from outside of Utah, local advocates are less than pleased with Karger’s tactics.
In a statement released by LGBT advocacy group Equality Utah, the nonprofit blasts Karger’s commercial as a political gimmick.
“We will not allow the rhetoric of Fred Karger to represent Utahns, both LDS and LGBT, without challenge,” the statement reads, noting the progress local activists have made in developing good relations with the LDS Church.
Equality Utah director Brandie Balken criticizes the commercial for misusing the research of Caitlin Ryan, who conducted the study for San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project. She points out that Ryan’s research says LGBT Mormon teens in unaccepting families are eight times more likely to commit suicide—Karger’s ad, she says, suggests that all LDS families are unaccepting of LGBT children.
“I feel like that black & white presentation is a misrepresentation of what Dr. Ryan put forward and is stereotypical of LDS parents,” Balken says. “As a representative of a community that frequently gets stereotyped, I can say that, both personally and professionally, I find that unacceptable.”
Mel Nimer, who recently finished his second term as head of the Utah Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay GOP Utahns, says Karger has been working throughout his presidential campaign to simply drive the issue of gay rights forward among conservatives and to do it in a way that gets the most attention.
“His whole point of running, from what I understand, was to bring to the forefront issues that most Republicans don’t want to deal with—marriage equality, basic equal rights and respect,” Nimer says.
Nimer’s organization even hosted Karger at a 2011 fundraiser, and Nimer says that while he hasn’t seen Karger’s commercial, he recognizes that Karger knows how to garner attention by putting himself and his message out there.
“You’ve got to do something to bring the conversation out,” Nimer says. “You can talk nice to most people and most of the time, that works well—sometimes it doesn’t.”
Despite the worries of some over Karger’s methods, the longshot presidential candidate says that after a brief break, he will be back on the election circuit soon, this time digging in for another showdown with the LDS Church and National Organization for Marriage.
“I’m going to hang up my spurs for a while, but I’m not going to ride off into the sunset just yet,” Karger says.