With no presidential contest, debt-ceiling showdown or racy Twitter scandal to keep them occupied, national Republicans are starting to take a lot of interest in Carl DeMaio and his bid to oust Rep. Scott Peters in 2014.

The National Republican Congressional Committee gleefully touted a poll last week that showed DeMaio leading Peters. Republicans believe DeMaio will help them gain ground on social issues. The release highlighted this passage for emphasis: “When asked who better reflects your positions on social issues, 40 percent of voters in the 10News poll went for DeMaio, with Peters getting just 38 percent and 23 percent ‘not sure.’”

And writing for Policy Mic, this junior from Georgetown (DeMaio’s alma mater) hails DeMaio as just what the party needs to “to stop its downward slide”:

DeMaio has taken a traditionally liberal position on a few key issues such as marriage and abortion, and this could be the beginning of a new type of Republican candidate.

It is with this socially liberal position that new-generation Republicans like DeMaio can accomplish two political goals: First, they take voters away from Democrats who would vote based on social issues. Second, by taking a similar social stance to Democrats, they make the economy the biggest difference between the two parties.

A competitive congressional race featuring an openly gay Republican has the D.C. media salivating, too. DeMaio already caught the attention of the Washington Examiner and Roll Call.

But all these politicos are setting themselves up for a long, disappointing road.

Not because DeMaio doesn’t have a shot at winning – he has a great one – but because the party has already begun hyping DeMaio as its big, gay proof that Republicans are evolving on social issues. And that puts them on an awkward collision course for when DeMaio deflects any and all questions on those issues over and over, for 15 straight months.

Often when Republicans play identity politics with their candidates, the candidates are in on the act.

There was Michael Steele, who loved to throw around phrases like “off the hook,” there was Allen West’s constant thundering that black voters should leave the Democrats’ “plantation,” there was Sarah Palin the hockey mom and, finally, there was Ann Romney on behalf of Mitt, declaring, “I love you, wom-en!”

DeMaio’s different.

Though he urged the GOP to embrace inclusion in his post-mayoral campaign reflection and described himself as “very candid and blunt and direct” when announcing his House bid, DeMaio is uniquely evasive when it comes to social issues.

He was the only one in last year’s mayoral race who didn’t fill out Planned Parenthood’s candidate questionnaire, though the group sent it to him twice – once early on in the race, and again a week before the election, at the DeMaio campaign’s request. He never sent either back, Amy Denhart, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, told me.

He was booed at one mayoral debate after refusing to answer a question from Nathan Fletcher on whether he supported a statewide measure that compels schools to include the contributions of gay and disabled citizens in textbooks and curricula.

“I do not believe the role of the mayor is to advance a social-issue agenda,” DeMaio said at the time. Did I mention this particular debate was hosted by the LGBT Community Center? That’s like attending a Chamber of Commerce debate and refusing to discuss the economy.

And he’s made it clear that he won’t be any less hostile to such questions in his congressional run, though the House votes regularly on bills that regulate social issues. His positions on social issues warrant a small section buried under the “other key issues” tab on his campaign website. They say, for example, “Carl DeMaio supports a woman’s right to choose” but don’t include any nuance or detail.

Then, there’s this: “While these positions will guide Carl DeMaio’s votes on these issues should they come up, Carl believes Washington should be focused on balancing the budget, revitalizing the economy, and providing quality services to taxpayers – and leave the social issues out of our politics.”

I emailed DeMaio for clarity on whether he plans to open up more about his social stands. In case it was easier to talk specifics, I also provided a particular example for him to weigh in on: Does he support Sen. Patrick Leahy’s proposed floor amendment that would add protections for binational same-sex couples into the immigration bill?

DeMaio emailed me twice to say he’d try to answer, but hedged that he wouldn’t be free to talk until July.

DeMaio is right that he shouldn’t have to be the “gay” candidate. DeMaio alone should get to define how he projects himself.

But even an understandable desire to control your image isn’t a good enough reason to avoid questions that are asked of all candidates.

Nor does not wanting to be branded the “gay” candidate hold water as an excuse for refusing to discuss issues like abortion or medical marijuana. DeMaio’s insistence that mayors don’t deal with social issues won’t work as a deflection this time around.

DeMaio may believe that the government should “leave the social issues out of our politics,” but it’s not very likely the rest of his party will oblige a freshman lawmaker.

Last week alone, House Republicans voted to ban abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy. Depending on a looming Supreme Court decision, Congress could soon be voting on legislation that dismantles the Defense of Marriage Act. There are 13 equality-related measures  facing the House this session, according to Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group.

Then there’s the fact that Peters isn’t likely to ignore social issues. He posed for photos this week for the NOH8 campaign to emphasize his support for marriage equality.

Republicans, especially young Republicans, seem desperate for a candidate they can hold up as proof of a new generation of leaders who take more liberal stances on social issues.

DeMaio says he’s that candidate. He just doesn’t want to talk about it.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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