PALM SPRINGS, California — Hidden in the California desert, where windmills line the rolling hills and rainbows adorn the crosswalks, a sizable progressive LGBTQ community has turned a once-reliable Republican stronghold into a battleground in the struggle for control of Congress, giving hope to Democrats for a seat in the House of Representatives that was long beyond their reach.
Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican who has served in Congress for three decades, has almost never faced a tough re-election campaign in this ruby-red corner of Southern California. But a redrawn political map of the state this year reshaped its district, adding Palm Springs, a liberal bastion dubbed by residents as America’s gayest city. The new district lines have put his seat in jeopardy as he runs up against an openly gay Democrat, Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor.
The shift has left Calvert’s district with just a handful of Republican-held House seats that Democrats are hoping to topple in November’s midterm elections, where they brace for losses that could cost them a representative majority. While Calvert has an advantage in fundraising and the power that comes with years of tenure, the shifting of the political floor has made his reelection race more competitive than it has been in over a decade.
Much of the shift was driven by heavily LGBTQ-leaning Palm Springs, which had the highest turnout in the district in this year’s primary, with just under 54% of eligible voters well above the 34% turnout for the district overall, according to Political Data Intelligence, a California-based political and voter data company.
“People flock here from all over the Inland Empire for safety and comfort,” Christy Holstege, a bisexual member of Palm Springs’ LGBTQ-only city council, said of the surrounding region as she gazed up at the statue of Marilyn Monroe, who overlooks the city. “You know this is a small piece of security, and since our turnout is high, that makes us a lot more powerful.”
Known in its early days as a Hollywood celebrity retreat, the city later became home to thousands of gay men who moved here during the AIDS epidemic for the warm climate, affordable housing and access to health care. It’s now the epitome of kitsch and wealth, with its mid-century architecture, pastel pinks on every corner, and lively nightlife.
Chad Gardner, a local business owner and chef who is gay, said he was moved by the impact his community was having on the election.
“We have some areas in the Inland Empire that are more conservative, so it’s going to come down to how we power our base,” said Gardner, who settled into a plush white armchair at an air-conditioned upscale restaurant to escape the 100 -degree heat on a recent morning.
Calvert, who received a zero in the most recent scorecard assessment by Congressmen of the Human Rights Campaign on issues of interest to the LGBTQ community, seems to have noticed. In July, he joined 46 other Republicans in voting for a bill that would recognize same-sex marriage federally, a reversal after years of opposition to laws protecting LGBTQ rights.
“As I have said for years, I believe the legality of same-sex marriage is established law, and I do not support reconsidering that decision,” Calvert said in a statement. He declined an interview.
Despite the about-face, he may find it difficult to earn the support of gay and lesbian voters in his new district, many of whom have bitter memories of the last time Calvert faced a gay opponent.
In 1994, in his race against Mark Takano, who is gay but had not yet come out publicly, Calvert distributed pink sales letters asking if Takano would be “a congressman for Riverside…or San Francisco.” (Eight years later, Takano won election to represent another House district in California, becoming the first openly gay person of Asian descent to serve in Congress.)
Samuel Garrett-Pate, the executive director of external affairs at Equality California, an LGBTQ civil rights organization, said it would be “poetic justice” for Calvert to be unseated by an openly gay candidate.
Still, Republican activists claim that Calvert, who had raised $2.4 million for his campaign by the end of June, compared to Rollins’ $1.5 million, is in a strong position given the rightward tilt of the western portion of the district. Overall, the number of registered Democrats and Republicans in the district was roughly equal in May.
“Palm Springs alone is not going to win this campaign,” said Matt Rexroad, a Sacramento-based Republican policy adviser.
Rollins, 37, whose work as a federal prosecutor focused on counterterrorism and counterintelligence, has not made gay rights the main focus of his campaign, which he launched after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. He has focused his message on preserving democracy and improving the economy, but he said protecting civil rights is embedded in both goals. “Our economy is better served when we all win – when we are all equally served,” Rollins said.
As he worked with volunteers in his campaign office one afternoon, writing postcards to prospective voters, Rollins argued that he represented the region better than Calvert, citing the legislature’s voting record as “an example of how pandering to extremes is just a political thing.” Losing is strategy.”
Calvert, 69, who was backed by former President Donald Trump, voted in support of his party’s motion to reject electoral votes for Joe Biden on Jan. 6. He rejected last year’s bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a compromise measure on gun safety by Congress from June past. Along with his Republican peers, he voted against the Democrats’ sweeping climate, health care and tax bill, which he said would increase spending at a time of record inflation.
A spokesman for the Republican campaign arm in the House of Representatives, Torunn Sinclair, said voters in Calvert County and elsewhere in California are most concerned about the economy and the cost of living. “Will Rollins will lose because he supports the Biden administration’s agenda that caused this inflationary crisis and increased taxes,” Sinclair said.
Calvert won re-election in 2020 by 14 percentage points. But in the June primary, in which the top two voters advanced regardless of political party, he received less than half the votes in his new district against two Democrats, one independent and one anti-Trump Republican.
At a fundraiser in May hosted by Barbara Boxer, a former Democratic senator from California, Rollins received over $200,000, Boxer said.
“People really understand the importance of this race,” she said. “Calvert does not reflect people’s values.” While Rollins lags behind his opponent in fundraising, Democrats note that he overtook Calvert for the first time last quarter, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.
Brady Bates, 22, a newcomer who said he recently moved to Palm Springs because of “the vibe” and because he feels safe there as a gay man, said he was undecided in the race for Congress but wouldn’t see one from Trump support supported candidates.
J. Ovier Alvarez, a 33-year-old gay man who describes himself as a conservative-leaning independent, also said he has yet to decide between the two candidates. As a real estate agent, he said he doesn’t care about Trump’s endorsement but is concerned about LGBTQ issues.
“We need leadership with an open mind that allows for LGBTQ inclusion,” Alvarez said, “but also someone who will ensure we find a good compromise that will allow us to coexist comfortably with the rest of the region.”