One month ahead of the May 20 primary in Idaho, Domenic Gelsomino is already starting to pound the pavement.
The 21-year-old 2013 graduate of Boise State University, whose most recent work experience is as a customer sales associate at Men’s Warehouse, wrapped up a door-to-door tour of his first precinct in the Boise area on April 26, a strategy he plans to adopt for the remainder of the district. He said that fundraising is going slowly at the moment, besides the individual contributions of supportive legislators like former state Sen. Russ Fuchler. But he’s hopeful that his candidacy will be a success, and more importantly, a piece of history for Idaho. Gelsomino is gay, conservative, and Catholic — and he’s trying to not be an anomaly in the future of the Republican Party.
“Idaho gets to see its first openly gay Republican run for office — and a conservative Republican too,” Gelsomino said in an interview in March announcing his sexuality at the beginning of the campaign.
Gelsomino and his equally young manager Daniel Tellez Jr. are waging an uphill battle with targeted idealism, trying to carefully balance the tenets of conservative Republicans in the state with a public image initially based on Gelsomino’s sexuality.
In fact, the casual visitor to his website wouldn’t know LGBT rights are not only a personal issue for Gelsomino, but even a policy concern. There’s little to no mention of same-sex marriages or LGBT rights on his site. Gelsomino’s site does however emphasize his firm pro-life beliefs and desire to dismantle Obamacare.
Gelsomino says the absence of LGBT issues in his campaign is part of a new strategy aimed at moving past his identity as a gay man and on to his positions as a conservative Republican who just happens to be gay.
“My coming-out was a means to be honest with my voters, be honest with fellow Republicans, and be honest with fellow Idahoans,” Gelsomino said. “But I’m not going to be going around publicizing it.”
Around the time of his announcement, Gelsomino spoke publicly and gave conditional support to the “Add the Words” initiative in Idaho, which would amend the Idaho Human Rights Act to include specific protections for LGBT Idahoans. Idaho is one of 29 states in which an individual can be legally fired based on sexual orientation. Gelsomino, a devout Catholic, didn’t support adding protections for LGBT people because religious institutions wouldn’t be exempted.
“As much as the gay community would like to have its rights respected, religious institutions would like to have their rights respected as well,” Gelsomino told BuzzFeed. “If they disagree with the lifestyle of the gay community, it’s their First Amendment right to do so.”
While ideological purists on both sides may not like his attempts at trying to appease both sides, they could be well matched for his district, which has switched between Republicans and Democrats several times. It’s that fickleness that Gelsomino hopes will push him past incumbent Democrat Phyllis King, who’s held the seat since 2008.
Still, King, who is a sponsor of the Add the Words campaign, argued that the novelty of a gay conservative isn’t likely enough to unseat her. “The people who vote for me don’t care if he’s gay or not,” King said. “The Republican voters are the ones who would probably care. And they would vote against that. So, I don’t think it’s helping him at all — being a Republican and being gay.”
Gelsomino also conceded that some LGBT voters have largely turned his back on him for being a conservative.
“I’ve already been called a backstabber, a traitor, and a token,” Gelsomino said. “That R is a stigmata.”
Some Idaho GOP candidates directly affiliated with Gelsomino are opposed to issues like same-sex marriage. Republican State Sen. Russ Fulcher, a candidate for governor to whom Gelsomino has referred as a mentor and father figure, argued to institute a statewide same-sex marriage ban in 2006 and has worked to deny domestic same-sex partnership benefits.
“It’s a culture war that we’re in … We get pounded by influences that are outside our own great state,” Fulcher said at the time.
Fulcher did not respond to a request for comment.
Gelsomino’s campaign manager, Tellez Jr., publicly supports Fulcher’s campaign on Facebook.
But Gelsomino still doesn’t know how Fulcher manages to remain his close friend and supporter while also opposing same-sex marriage rights.
“I unfortunately don’t have an answer for that,” Gelsomino said. “I guess because it is more of a personable, family-like relationship. That’s something within himself that I can’t answer. I really don’t question it, but I’m grateful for it. He still sees members of the LGBT community as human beings.”
The Republican Party of Idaho is reluctant to discuss Gelsomino and his sexuality this early in the campaign process, but executive director Trevor Thorpe conceded that Gelsomino faces a difficult challenge to win over Republicans.
“I don’t think anyone would deny the fact that he has some barriers to get over,” Thorpe said.
“After the primary, of course, we’ll support [Gelsomino] — as we will any other candidate,” Thorpe said. “And hopefully we can support him to the level where we can help him to win that seat which is currently held by a Democrat. During the primary, we have to be impartial. But I would support all of our Republican candidates.”
When asked why the party wasn’t supporting Gelsomino at this time, given that he’s currently running unopposed, Thorpe said: “We’re just not engaging in elections at this point.”
Whether or not Gelsomino will come out the victor in November, he is already putting his candidacy in the context of national GOP politics.
“There have been other LGBT Republicans that have won in legislative races in Republican states,” Gelsomino said. “This is just the beginning of the reshaping of the party that people like Rand Paul have been talking about. It’s a reshaping of the party that will lead it into the future and will lead it into victories and show the people that we’re not a party of close-minded bigots or anything else.”
At least one political strategist in Idaho, conceding that he didn’t have a huge amount of familiarity with District B 18, agreed with Gelsomino’s cause.
“I think it is about time we had an openly gay Republican candidate for the legislature in Idaho,” said Ron Lahr, a member of the Idaho-based group Strategery. “While there are certainly some homophobes in the party here I don’t believe it is a majority and I welcome the chance for some increased diversity in our elected officials. I liked Dom’s Facebook page as a tiny measure of support and hope he wins.”
It’s a small gesture to work towards one of Lahr’s larger goals.
“Ultimately, in Idaho, just like in the entire country, if the only candidates the Republican Party runs are older, white, straight males we will end up as a minor party in the future,” Lahr said. “We need to be the party for everyone where our ideas are what win voters over to us, not ethnic background or sexual preference.”