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A new force is emerging in American politics: wealthy, gay political donors who targets state-level races. Last year, they funneled millions of dollars into dozens of carefully selected campaigns. Their goal: to elect gay-friendly governors and state lawmakers.

Austin Jenkins with the Northwest News Network reports from Olympia, Washington.

AUSTIN JENKINS: Freshman state Representative Deb Eddy, a Democrat from Seattle's Eastside, remembers the phone call last summer. It was from a political consultant on the East Coast.

State Representative DEB EDDY (Democrat, Seattle): And their purpose was simply to let me know that I would be receiving checks from out-of-state, and that these were all in the up-and-up.

JENKINS: As Eddy remembers it, the caller told her the money was coming from a group of gay and gay-friendly donors who wanted to help influence state legislative races. Soon the checks started arriving, seven in all. Some of the checks came with a note attached.

State Rep. EDDY: That I had been brought to their attention by Tim Gill, which was the first time I had heard the name.

JENKINS: Tim Gill is an openly gay software mogul-turned-philanthropist from Denver. He would not consent to an interview for this story, but his staff confirms that last year, Gill launched an under-the-radar political giving campaign. He and his network of deep-pocketed friends targeted some 70 state-level races in more than a dozen states including Washington State.

Mr. PATRICK GUERRERO (Political Director, Tim Gill): I think what folks like Tim Gill are attempting to do is to basically level the playing field.

JENKINS: Patrick Guerrero, former head of the Log Cabin Republicans, is Gill's political director. He says Gill's swung into action after the 2004 election, when several states voted to ban gay marriage.

Mr. GUERRERO: I think a lot of folks who believe in basic equality were caught blindsided when the issue of marriage equality was used as a wedge issue in elections around the 2004 cycle. And what happened was a lot of really decent, fair-minded legislators were thrown out of office based on those issues.

JENKINS: The goal now is to win back seats and win gay rights, state by state. And Gill isn't alone. His efforts inspired another gay philanthropist - John Stryker, a Michigan billionaire - to target down-ballot races in some 15 states last year. This focus on state politics makes sense strategically. Consider what's happened in Washington State with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate. In the last two years, lawmakers have passed a gay non-discrimination law and domestic partnership legislation. The chief sponsor of both those measures was State Senator Ed Murray, an openly gay Seattle Democrat.

State Senator ED MURRAY (Democrat, Seattle): First of all, the victories we've had have happened at the state and local level, so I think that there's an interest in investing where we can continue to win. Secondly, I think that it's become clear to people that the issue of marriage is going to be dealt with state by state.

JENKINS: One person who's sounding the alarm about Tim Gill and his political strategy is Peter LaBarbera. He is president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, a group that opposes gay rights.

Mr. PETER LaBARBERA (President, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality): It was a brilliant campaign, it's a brilliant strategy. I don't know how ethical it is given that the local people didn't know what was happening.

JENKINS: LaBarbera predicts conservative groups will respond in the next election.

Mr. LaBARBERA: I would say that in some of the swing districts where this tactic was used, those people will be vulnerable especially when it comes out that they unseated the incumbent with the sort of stealth, gay strategy.

JENKINS: That could mean even more money flowing from wealthy out-of-state donors to local campaigns on both sides of the gay rights debate.

For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington.

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