If Dan Baer Becomes the First Openly Gay Man Elected to the U.S. Senate, He'll "Pay It Forward"
When Dan Baer marched with his husband, Brian Walsh, in Denver’s LGBTQ Pride parade on June 16, he did so with a message in hand. “Hot Tea: Gardner’s Toast,” Baer’s sign read. His partner had his own version: “Cory Gardner: Sashay Away.”
Baer is one of 12 Democratic candidates competing to unseat the Colorado Republican in the U.S. Senate during the 2020 elections. The race is a critical one for Democrats, who hope to flip the upper chambers of Congress after taking back the House last year. According to the Cook Political Report, Gardner’s is one of just two GOP-held seats considered “toss-ups” in 2020. Martha McSally, the occupant of the other seat, was tapped to replace resigning Arizona Senator Jon Kyl in December.
The 42-year-old is already off to a strong start. While Gardner fundraised $2 million in the second quarter of 2019, Baer wasn’t far behind with $1.1 million, the second-most of Democratic candidates. That total, which notably doesn’t include the $250,000 left over from his aborted 2016 bid for Congress, is historic: It’s the most an LGBTQ Senate candidate has ever raked in right out of the gate.
“There's enormous enthusiasm in this moment for expanding the reach of who gets counted and who gets included in our politics,” he tells NewNowNext. “People rightly see this as a candidacy that opens a door that hasn't been opened before.”
Dan Baser (L) and Brian Walsh (R).
If elected to Congress next November, Baer would the first openly gay man to be seated in the Senate and just the third LGBTQ person elected overall, following Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin in 2012 and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema last year. Baldwin identifies as a lesbian, while Sinema is bisexual.
Baer is used to having a front-row seat to history. During his time as the Assistant Deputy Secretary of State, he helped his boss, Hillary Clinton, draft a December 2011 speech in which she told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights.” After he was appointed to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2013, he became the youngest ambassador in the world and just the fourth openly LGBTQ person to ever be nominated.
Being a part of those milestones was “surreal,” Baer remembers. But what many don’t realize is that Clinton’s UN speech, which was based on a memorandum she sent to every U.S. ambassador in the world a year earlier, was around 40 minutes long. By the time it was over, a straight colleague who was a member of her senior staff “had tears coming down his face.”
“It's hard to take ourselves back to how groundbreaking it was,” he says. “I joked to people in the months after her speech, ‘When Hillary Clinton gives a speech on something, it’s no longer edgy,’ but it was when she did it.”
When NewNowNext asked Baer what it has been like to see the reversal on LGBTQ rights under Donald Trump, he says the president’s decimation of HIV/AIDS funding and consistent appointments of anti-LGBTQ officials is consistent with the “reversal of American leadership in the world” since January 2017. If Barack Obama was America’s “cooperator in chief,” he says it’s clear Trump has “chosen a different path.”
“It’s hard to put a name to because it's so disruptive and chaotic in its execution,” he says. “But we can say what it’s not. It’s not a path rooted in values-based leadership.”
Baer hopes that Democratic victories in 2020 will bring cooperation and leadership back to the Senate following what he calls “a generation-long campaign” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to “get people to stop believing in the possibility of politics.” When Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Sharice Davids (Kan.), Ayanna Presley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) won election to the House last year, he says it was a moment where Americans came together to “reject cynicism.”
At the time, Baer served as the director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education under Gov. John Hickenlooper. He says the momentum he was seeing across the country is what encouraged him to throw his hat in the ring for the Senate.
“I turned to my husband in the months after that and said, ‘Look, running a campaign that's about Dan Baer isn't terribly exciting to me, but running a campaign that's about fighting off cynicism and asserting that we can still make progress through politics, that’s something I can get excited about,’” he recalls.
Early polling shows, however, that Baer has a great deal of work ahead of him in communicating that message to primary voters. He’s currently sitting in fourth behind former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (who has not formally declared), and former State Sen. Mike Johnston. He is tied with Former Colorado House Majority Leader Alice Madden and former U.S. Attorney John Walsh at 2%.
Those results, however, should be taken with a grain of salt. The poll was conducted by Senate PAC, which is largely compromised of former Griswold donors. According to the Colorado Sun, only some poll questions have been released to the public; others appear biased toward Griswold's presumptive candidacy.
It's difficult to say where Baer stands right now. But if he's able to make his polling numbers match his prodigious donations, it will be a major coup. Although the Republican incumbent likes to bill himself as a moderate on LGBTQ rights, Gardner scores just a 12 on the HRC's Congressional Scorecard. He does not support marriage equality and has voted against same-sex adoptions and banning anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy.
Overcoming the current 21-point gap that separates him and Romanoff might seem a precipitous climb, but three decades ago, Baer never thought he would get this far. He was a teenager when the Centennial State passed Amendment 2, which prevented cities and counties from passing local ordinances protecting LGBTQ people.
Baer still remembers sitting at the dinner table with his family the evening of the vote. He wasn’t out, and he wasn’t sure who he was yet. But deep down, he knew the vote deep implications for what he could achieve in life.
“Fifteen is the worst time to be told that you shouldn't have daydreams like other kids do,” Baer recalls. “The progress has been made in the last 25 years is something I would not have been able to imagine. It's both inspiring and creates a debt of gratitude that requires me to pay it forward.”