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In the California desert, LGBTQ voters could sway a key House race

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Tucked away in the California desert, where windmills line the sprawling hills and rainbows adorn the crosswalks, a sizable progressive LGBTQ community has turned a once reliably Republican stronghold into a battleground in the fight for control of Congress, giving Democrats hope for picking up a House seat that has long been beyond their reach.

Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican who has served in Congress for three decades, has almost never faced a tough reelection contest in this ruby-red corner of Southern California. But a redrawn political map in the state has reshaped his district this year, adding Palm Springs, a liberal bastion that residents proclaim to be the gayest city in America. The new district lines have put his seat at risk as he faces off against an openly gay Democrat, Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor.

The shift has made Calvert’s district one of only a handful of Republican-held House seats that Democrats have a hope of flipping in November’s midterm elections, in which they are bracing for losses that could cost them the House majority. While Calvert has an edge in fundraising and the power that comes with years of incumbency, the shifting political ground has made his reelection race more competitive than it has been in over a decade.

Much of the shift has been driven by heavily LGBTQ Palm Springs, which in this year’s primary election had the highest turnout rate in the district, with just under 54% of eligible voters casting a ballot, well above the 34% turnout level for the district overall, according to Political Data Intelligence, a California-based political and voter data firm.

“People flock here from across the Inland Empire for safety and comfort,” Christy Holstege, a bisexual member of Palm Springs’ all-LGBTQ City Council, said of the surrounding region as she gazed up at the statue of Marilyn Monroe that overlooks the city. “They know that this is a little sliver of safety, and since our turnout is high, it makes us that much more powerful.”

The city was known in its early days as a retreat for Hollywood celebrities, and it later became home to thousands of gay men who relocated there during the AIDS epidemic for the warm climate, affordable housing and access to health care. It is now the epitome of kitsch and rich, with its midcentury architecture, pastel pink at every corner and a lively nightlife.

Chad Gardner, a local business owner and chef who is gay, said he was moved by the influence that his community has in the election.

“We do have some areas that are more conservative in the Inland Empire, so it’s going to come down to how we can energize our base,” Gardner said, lounging in a plush white chair in an air-conditioned upscale restaurant to escape the 100-degree heat on a recent morning.

Calvert, who received a zero on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent scorecard rating members of Congress on issues of interest to the LGBTQ community, appears to have taken notice. In July, he joined 46 other Republicans in voting in favor of a bill that would recognize same-sex marriage at the federal level, a reversal after years of opposing legislation to protect LGBTQ rights.

“As I have said for years, I believe the legality of same-sex marriage is settled law and I do not support revisiting that determination,” Calvert said in a statement. He declined to be interviewed.

Despite the turnabout, he may have an uphill slog to earn the backing of the gay and lesbian voters in his new district, many of whom have bitter memories of the last time Calvert faced a gay opponent.

In 1994, in his race against Mark Takano, who is gay but had not yet come out publicly, Calvert circulated pink mailers questioning whether Takano would be “a congressman for Riverside … or San Francisco?” (Eight years later, Takano won election to represent a different House district in California, becoming the first openly gay person of Asian descent to serve in Congress.)

Samuel Garrett-Pate, the managing director of external affairs at Equality California, an LGBTQ civil rights organization, said it would be “poetic justice” if Calvert were unseated by an openly gay candidate.

Still, Republican operatives contend that Calvert, who through the end of June had raised $2.4 million for his campaign compared with Rollins’ $1.5 million, is in a strong position given the right-leaning bent of the western portion of the district. Overall, the numbers of registered Democrats and Republicans in the district were roughly even as of May.

“Palm Springs alone isn’t going to win this campaign,” said Matt Rexroad, a Sacramento-based Republican political consultant.

Rollins, 37, whose work as a federal prosecutor focused on counterterrorism and counterintelligence, has not made gay rights the main thrust of his campaign, one he said he decided to undertake after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. He has centered his message on preserving democracy and improving the economy, but he said civil rights protections were embedded in both goals.

Calvert, 69, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, voted for his party’s bid to throw out electoral votes for Joe Biden on Jan. 6. He opposed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill last year and a compromise gun safety measure that Congress passed in June. Along with his Republican colleagues, he voted against Democrats’ sweeping climate, health care and tax bill, which he said would increase spending at a time of record inflation.

A spokesperson for the House Republicans’ campaign arm, Torunn Sinclair, said voters in Calvert’s district and elsewhere in California were most concerned about the economy and the cost of living. “Will Rollins will lose because he supports the Biden administration’s agenda that caused this inflation crisis and raised taxes,” Sinclair said.

Calvert won reelection in 2020 by 14 percentage points. But in the primary in June, where the top two vote-getters advanced regardless of political party, he received less than half the votes in his new district against two Democrats, an independent and an anti-Trump Republican.

At a fundraiser in May hosted by Barbara Boxer, a former Democratic senator from California, Rollins received over $200,000, Boxer said.

“People really understand the importance of this race,” she said. “Calvert does not reflect the values of the people.”

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