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In Palm Springs, L.G.B.T.Q. Voters Could Sway a Key House Race


PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Tucked away within the California desert, where windmills line the sprawling hills and rainbows adorn the crosswalks, a large progressive L.G.B.T.Q. community has turned a once reliably Republican stronghold right into a battleground within the fight for control of Congress, giving Democrats hope for choosing up a House seat that has long been beyond their reach.

Representative Ken Calvert, a Republican who has served in Congress for 3 many years, has almost never faced a tricky re-election contest on this ruby-red corner of Southern California. But a redrawn political map within the state has reshaped his district this yr, adding Palm Springs, a liberal bastion that residents proclaim to be the gayest city in America. The brand new district lines have put his seat in danger as he faces off against an openly gay Democrat, Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor.

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

Much of the shift has been driven by heavily L.G.B.T.Q. Palm Springs, which on this yr’s primary election had the very best turnout rate within the district, with just below 54 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot, well above the 34 percent turnout level for the district overall, in line with Political Data Intelligence, a California-based political and voter data firm.

“People flock here from across the Inland Empire for safety and luxury,” Christy Holstege, a bisexual member of Palm Springs’ all-L.G.B.T.Q. City Council, said of the encompassing region as she gazed up on the statue of Marilyn Monroe that overlooks the town. “They know that that is a bit of sliver of safety, and since our turnout is high, it makes us that far more powerful.”

The town was known in its early days as a retreat for Hollywood celebrities, and it later became home to hundreds of gay men who relocated there through the AIDS epidemic for the nice and cozy climate, reasonably priced housing and access to health care. It’s now the epitome of kitsch and wealthy, with its midcentury architecture, pastel pink at every corner and a full of life nightlife.

Chad Gardner, an area business owner and chef who’s gay, said he was moved by the influence that his community has within the election.

“We do have some areas which can be more conservative within the Inland Empire, so it’s going to return right down to how we will energize our base,” Mr. Gardner said, lounging in a luxurious white chair in an air-conditioned upscale restaurant to flee the 100-degree heat on a recent morning.

Mr. Calvert, who received a zero on the Human Rights Campaign’s most up-to-date scorecard rating members of Congress on problems with interest to the L.G.B.T.Q. community, appears to have taken notice. In July, he joined 46 other Republicans in voting in favor of a bill that will recognize same-sex marriage on the federal level, a reversal after years of opposing laws to guard L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

“As I actually have said for years, I feel the legality of same-sex marriage is settled law and I don’t support revisiting that determination,” Mr. Calvert said in a press release. He declined to be interviewed.

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

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

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Samuel Garrett-Pate, the managing director of external affairs at Equality California, an L.G.B.T.Q. civil rights organization, said it will be “poetic justice” if Mr. Calvert were unseated by an openly gay candidate.

Still, Republican operatives contend that Mr. Calvert, who through the tip of June had raised $2.4 million for his campaign compared with Mr. Rollins’s $1.5 million, continues to be in a powerful position given the right-leaning bent of the western portion of the district. Overall, the numbers of registered Democrats and Republicans within the district were roughly at the same time as of May.

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

Mr. Rollins, 37, whose work as a federal prosecutor focused on counterterrorism and counterintelligence, has not made gay rights the predominant 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 each goals.

“Our economy is healthier served after we all win — after we are all served equally,” Mr. Rollins said.

As he worked with volunteers in his campaign office on a recent afternoon writing postcards to prospective voters, Mr. Rollins argued that he represented the region higher than Mr. Calvert did, calling the lawmaker’s voting record “an example of how pandering to the extremes is only a losing political strategy.”

Mr. Calvert, 69, who has been endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump, voted for his party’s bid to throw out electoral votes for Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Jan. 6. He opposed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill last yr and a compromise gun preventive measure that Congress passed in June. Along together 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 spokeswoman for the House Republicans’ campaign arm, Torunn Sinclair, said voters in Mr. Calvert’s district and elsewhere in California were most concerned in regards to the economy and the associated fee of living. “Will Rollins will lose because he supports the Biden administration’s agenda that caused this inflation crisis and raised taxes,” Ms. Sinclair said.

Mr. Calvert won re-election in 2020 by 14 percentage points. But in the first in June, where the highest two vote-getters advanced no matter political party, he received lower than half the votes in his latest district against two Democrats, an independent and an anti-Trump Republican.

At a fund-raiser in May hosted by Barbara Boxer, a former Democratic senator from California, Mr. Rollins received over $200,000, Ms. Boxer said.

“People really understand the importance of this race,” she said. “Calvert doesn’t reflect the values of the people.”

While Mr. Rollins has lagged his opponent in fund-raising, Democrats note that he outraised Mr. Calvert for the primary time last quarter, in line with Federal Election Commission filings.

Brady Bates, 22, a newcomer who said he recently moved to Palm Springs for “the vibe” and since he felt secure there as a gay man, said he was undecided within the congressional race but wouldn’t support a candidate backed by Mr. Trump.

J. Ovier Alvarez, a 33-year-old gay man who described himself as a conservative-leaning independent, also said he had yet to choose from the 2 candidates. An actual estate agent, he said he didn’t care about Mr. Trump’s endorsement but was concerned about L.G.B.T.Q. issues.

“We want leadership with an open mind that may allow for L.G.B.T.Q. inclusion,” Mr. Alvarez said, “but in addition someone who will make certain we have now a superb compromise that may allow us to live comfortably with the remainder of the region.”

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