BRAINERD, Minn. – State Sen. Paul Koering once fit neatly into the profile of socially conservative central Minnesota: abortion opponent, supporter of gun and property rights, outspoken supporter of veterans.
But last year, Koering was the only Republican in the Senate to join Democrats in opposing an effort to force a floor vote on a constitutional gay marriage ban.
That stirred up long-standing rumors at the Capitol about Koering's own sexuality, and within a few days he revealed that he was gay — a move the area's GOP chairman called "political suicide."
In Tuesday's primary, he will find out if that is true.
"There's going to be a lot of people watching to see if the voters can look at my record and say, 'He's doing a good job,'" said the 41-year-old Koering. "Or, will they look at my personal life and say, 'I can't support him because of that.' If that's how they're going to vote, I may be out of a job."
Kevin Goedker, a city councilman who's challenging Koering in Tuesday's GOP primary, says it isn't because his opponent is gay. But he's making an explicit appeal to voters whose values guide them in the voting booth.
"People of high moral values and integrity must rally and support candidates who will work to bring ethics, morals and family values back into government," Goedker's father, Gene, his campaign treasurer, wrote in a fundraising letter.
Patrick Sammon, executive vice president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, said it's important to the future of the Republican Party that politicians like Koering can find support.
"If the Republicans want to be a lasting majority party in America, they can't just shut out gays and lesbians," Sammon said.
The Victory Fund, which raises campaign funds for gay candidates, said there are currently 325 openly gay elected officials in the country, out of about 511,000 elected offices. The group doesn't break that figure down by party, but "the vast majority of them are Democrats," spokesman Denis Dison said.
"We are seeing more instances of openly gay Republicans, but there are still going to be significant parts of the country where that's going to be difficult to pull off," Dison said.
It doesn't help that a significant portion of the Republican base is dead-set against legal recognition of gay relationships, the leading front in recent years in the battle for gay rights. More than any other issues, those opposed to Koering's re-election cite his decision to break from the party line on gay marriage.
Indeed, since that 2005 vote, he has changed course, siding with fellow Senate Republicans in more recent efforts to get a statewide vote on the definition of marriage. Koering said it's what the majority of his constituents want, though he won't say how he'd cast his own ballot if it ever comes to a statewide vote.
Koering is not without his supporters among local Republicans, and in April he won the party's endorsement after seven rounds of balloting. Goedker decided to run in the primary anyway.
The winner will face Democrat Terry Sluss, a county commissioner, in the November election.
Goedker said he wouldn't vote for Koering in the general election.
"In my opinion I think it'd be tough to be gay and to be somebody I'd vote for based on some of the life choices they make," Goedker said. "To me it's a more liberal point of view."