WASHINGTON — Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu’s weekend confirmation that he is gay makes him the fourth openly gay or bisexual candidate seeking a congressional seat in Arizona this year.
Experts say that appears to be more than in any other state in the country, where they count a total of just about a dozen openly gay candidates currently running for Congress. In Arizona, gay or bisexual candidates are now vying for three of the state’s nine congressional seats.
“It’s pretty unusual,” said Donald Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “As a percentage, I can’t think of another instance where it’s been so high.”
Despite its conservative credentials, Arizona has deep libertarian roots that may help explain the number of openly gay public officials who feel free to run for office there, experts said.
Babeu, a Republican, has appealed to those libertarian sentiments in demanding that voters should judge him on his record and not on his personal, private life.
The comments came in response to a Phoenix New Times story Friday that claimed Babeu had threatened an ex-lover, a Mexican man, with deportation.
In a news conference this weekend, Babeu said the article’s claims “are absolutely, completely false, except for the issues that refer to me as being gay. Because that’s the truth: I am gay.”
He refused to back out of the race for the newly drawn congressional 4th District, which includes Prescott and most of Yavapai County. Republican primary opponents in that conservative-leaning district include U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Flagstaff and state Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City.
Babeu joins three state lawmakers — all Democrats — who are openly gay or bisexual and running for Congress this year in Arizona. Rep. Matt Heinz and state Sen. Paula Aboud, both of Tucson, are running in District 2; former state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Phoenix, who has said she is bisexual, is running in the new District 9.
But Arizona has a long history of electing openly gay candidates, said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect gays to public office.
“Arizona has a conservative reputation but it also has a history with openly gay candidates at the local and state level,” Dison said. “Once those barriers are broken, people get bored with the topic and it’s less of an issue.”
Currently there are four openly gay members of Congress. All are Democrats and all hail from states that were blue in 2008: Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
But Haider-Markel, whose 2010 book “Out and Running” analyzes the impact of gay and lesbian political representation in the U.S., said Arizona “is a little bit unusual historically because its openly gay candidates have just as often been Republican as Democrat.”
Former Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican, won re-election in 1996 after coming out as gay following his vote in support of the Defense of Marriage Act. Kolbe, the second openly gay Republican in Congress, held his seat until he retired in 2007 after 11 terms.
Still, Babeu faces unique challenges for an openly gay candidate, Haider-Markel said. Most gay Republicans are moderates who win in districts that lean Democratic, he said, but the sheriff is running in a strongly Republican district and is known for his conservative positions on issues such as border security.
“For someone to be running for an open seat, openly gay and Republican, they really have the odds stacked against them,” Haider-Markel said.
For that reason, a Babeu victory could be a “landmark” moment for the gay community, Haider-Markel said.
“It would give gay Republicans a real hope that they could successfully run for office in places they had not considered before,” he said.