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Chasten Buttigieg emerges as Mayor Pete's secret weapon

The Hill logo The Hill 4/27/2019 Alex Gangitano
Peter Buttigieg wearing glasses posing for the camera: Chasten Buttigieg emerges as Mayor Pete's secret weapon © The Hill Chasten Buttigieg emerges as Mayor Pete's secret weapon

Chasten Buttigieg has emerged as a star in the Democratic primary, becoming a key part of his husband Pete Buttigieg's campaign and helping the South Bend, Ind., mayor stand out in a crowded field.

The 29-year-old school humanities and drama junior high teacher from Michigan not only functions as a much sought-after campaign spokesman and adviser, but he is also helping humanize the first gay major presidential candidate in a country that only legalized same-sex marriage four years ago.

But as Pete Buttigieg, 37, becomes a major contender for the nomination, questions are emerging about whether the gay couple will have the same appeal in more conservative parts of the country as they do with Democratic primary voters.

"The bigger question is: if he were to win the nomination how voters in key states who might not know any married gay couples and be uncomfortable with their relationship may react, and I think that remains to be seen," Tim Miller, former communications director to Jeb Bush and GOP strategist.

For now, as Pete Buttigieg, also widely known as Mayor Pete, has surged in the Democratic polls, so has the attention lavished on Chasten Buttigieg, who took a leave from the Montessori Academy to join him on the campaign trail.

Though Pete Buttigieg is not the first gay candidate to seek a party's presidential nomination -- Fred Karger ran in the Republican primary in 2012 -- he is widely seen as the first with a genuine shot at winning.

And he has done so by making his biography as a gay Christian millennial, Rhodes Scholar and Afghanistan war veteran a key part of his campaign, including his love for Chasten Buttigieg.

The couple speak openly about their relationship, including how they met through a dating app, their first date, and their marriage in 2018. They also own two dogs, Buddy and Truman, and Pete Buttigieg has talked about eventually having kids.

Chasten Buttigieg now introduces his husband at some stops and also branches out on his own, including addressing the Human Rights Campaign in Houston and visiting the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ young people, in New York.

Pete Buttigieg's husband has also seen his social media following surge, and now counts over 100,000 followers on Instagram and around 300,000 followers on Twitter -- more than some of the 2020 candidates in the race like Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) or Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).

That visibility is unusual for a spouse or partner at such an early stage in the primary process, let alone a gay couple that remains one of the youngest in the Democratic field of over 20 candidates.

"Its still very odd for me to see what the most normal looking couple, or the least fretful," said Mark Rom, associate professor at Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, "is the gay couple in the race."

No other Democratic contenders has seen their partner or spouse have such a visible part of the campaign, though they have made brief cameos, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) husband in an Instagram video. Meanwhile, actress Rosario Dawson has talked about dating Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

But strategists say that having Chasten Buttigieg play such a big role brings youth and authenticity to his husband's campaign, providing an advantage in a Democratic party where some are hungering for a fresh alternative to former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the two septuagenarians currently leading in the Democratic primary polls.

"Chasten brings an authenticity to the campaign that is really valuable - particularly with his online presence," Miller said. "He interacts like a normal millennial human online, not like a stilted or scripted pol and there's a lot of appeal to that. In some ways his persona reflects onto and humanizes Pete who is more straight-laced and political in his communications."

Strategists also say that Chasten Buttigieg has an added advantage, helping Pete Buttigieg further stand out at a time when some Democratic primary voters are wary of nominating a traditional straight white male in a rapidly diversifying party.

"It reminds Democratic primary voters that he is gay, which is a plus. It helps distinguish him from other white males in the race," said David Barker, a professor of government at American University, about how Chasten Buttigieg helps Pete Buttigieg's campaign.

However, whether such openness will be accepted by more conservative - and older - parts of the country, should Pete Buttigieg clinch the nomination, remains in doubt, even as a number of LGBTQ lawmakers have been elected in recent years, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) from traditionally red state Arizona.

Pete Buttigieg this month openly feuded with Vice President Pence, attacking the religious conservative for his stance on LGBTQ issues and gay marriage.

"Being married to Chasten has made me a better human being because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent," he said at a widely-quoted speech at the LGBTQ Victory Fund's annual brunch, earlier this month.

"My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God," he added, prompting applause.

Pence has opposed legalizing gay marriage, something he says stems from his Christian faith.

Most recently Buttigieg was attacked by Franklin Graham, son of the late preacher Billy Graham.

"Mayor Buttigieg says he's a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman-not two men, not two women," Graham tweeted on Wednesday.

Still, some strategists dismiss the prospect that Pete Buttigieg, along with Chasten Buttigieg, might suffer because they are gay, noting that many conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage would probably not vote Democratic anyway.

Instead, they encouraged the Buttigiegs to continue being open about their relationship.

"Pete Buttigieg is a wunderkind, but at the core of it all is authenticity. His appeal is that he is young and smart, of course, but he is leading with his full self," Democratic strategist Don Calloway, CEO of Pine Street strategies, said.

"They are young, handsome and happy and in love, so their relationship is an asset to the campaign, much like it would be for a straight couple."

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