Freshly elected to the Senate, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) represents a slew of “firsts.” She will be Arizona’s first female senator. She was the first openly bisexual person elected to Congress and carries that first with her to the Senate. And the former Mormon was the first person sent to Congress to claim no religion. After winning her congressional seat in 2012, she was sworn in on the Constitution, forgoing the Bible chosen by Christians — the dominant religion for members of Congress, especially those from Arizona.
But during an election cycle where some candidates openly touted their desire to be a first, breaking barriers was not the focal point of the Sinema campaign.
Justin Unga, who oversaw the Arizona effort for the Human Rights Campaign, told The Fix that focusing on one’s identity hasn’t always been the most effective way to connect with Arizona’s voters. And there is also a concern among gay voters that they are being pandered to when candidates overemphasize identity.
“Arizona’s strong independent streak has always meant that we elect people on their merit,” he said. “For decades, we’ve sent openly LGBTQ leaders into every level of government. Folks like Kyrsten, [former Tempe mayor] Neil Guiliano, and [state Rep.] Daniel Hernandez Jr. served and were reelected based on their ability to represent their constituents.”
“Arizona is an example of bringing people together of different stripes to lift up common values. That’s what we did this year,” he added.
That doesn’t mean that Sinema tried to downplay her identity during her campaign. During a year where the gay community was looking for more representation in Washington and beyond, Unga said the groups that supported Sinema were looking for an ally in Congress.
“The Human Rights Campaign made Arizona a main focus of our 2018 electoral efforts because we had a chance to double LGBTQ representation in the Senate and because of Kyrsten’s record of fighting for every Arizonan, including LGBTQ families,” Unga said. “We activated hundreds of volunteers and thousands of voters who saw themselves in the political process with a candidate like Kyrsten.”
Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, a nonprofit focused on maintaining the separation of church and state, told The Fix that issues that were once viewed as dealbreakers for some candidates appear to no longer be major issues.
"Candidates should run on the issues and show their constituents exactly how they’ll represent them. But we shouldn’t pretend that a candidate’s religion is a nonissue,” he said. “If more politicians, even religious candidates, embraced that secular approach to governance, we’d be in a far better place. It’s been my experience that our community votes on the issues, not on the labels, and that’s how it should be.”
But during a time when conservative Christians — white evangelicals in particular — appear to have more political clout than ever, discussing one’s religious identity in the current political climate can sometimes feel like navigating an obstacle course.
And while focusing on one’s faith may not be a winning campaign strategy in some places, avoiding discussions about it should not be the default approach based on how many Americans likely view the world similarly, Fish said. Almost 40 percent of young people are nonreligious, and a quarter of all Americans are.
“You can run as an open atheist or nonbeliever and still focus on the issues. But candidates shouldn’t have to hide an important part of their identity to avoid offending voters. Unfortunately, running as an open atheist can still be difficult for candidates,” he said.
But that could be changing. Sinema is attracting national attention for many reasons, not the least of which is whether there is a path for centrist politicians in our highly divisive times. But the role of identity in a politician’s life — and its degree of prominence — will be a common topic of conversation as voters head into the 2020 election looking for leaders who can unite an increasingly diversifying country.