This odd-year election cycle was a chance for candidates, political parties and political action committees to experiment and fine-tune their messages to voters in relatively low-stakes elections a year ahead of next fall’s presidential election.
This year conservatives spent millions of dollars attacking their more liberal opponents over trans issues, which have become a particular Republican obsession over the last few years. In particular, a conservative anti-trans group, the American Principles Project, run by virulent transphobe Terry Schilling, spent $2.2 million on attack ads against Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, after Beshear vetoed two bills targeting transgender kids.
The ads fell flat in the red state, and Beshear enjoyed a relatively easy re-election win over his Republican challenger,?state Attorney General Daniel Cameron. It’s yet more proof that transphobia is an election loser and that it might be time for the trans-obsessed caucus within the GOP to change its electoral strategy.
In Ohio,?a religious conservative group called Protect Women Ohio spent millions on ads this year in the run-up to an August election that would have required 60% support for Ohio voters to amend the state constitution. Ads from Protect Women Ohio in support of raising the threshold to 60% portrayed a drag queen reading to a classroom, a clear attempt to scaremonger voters and convince them that Tuesday’s abortion-rights measure was a gateway measure that would eventually result in Democrats’ forcing trans issues onto kids.
Not only did Ohio voters reject the August ballot measure that would have required?60% support for voters to amend the state constitution, but on Tuesday,?56% of those who cast ballots voted in favor of protecting abortion access in the constitution. What was noticeable was how reluctant Republicans were to actually argue in favor of their own abortion restrictions, instead opting to make the election about trans issues. Protect Women Ohio ran ads that claimed that the abortion-rights ballot measure would allow minors to undergo sex reassignment surgery without their “parents’ knowledge or involvement.”
Conservatives have been struggling to connect with suburban voters across the country for multiple election cycles. The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, as Republicans wanted, and other Republican extremist policy ideas have been tough sells in places where people just want to go about daily life unbothered.
Republican strategists appeared to have thought that by demonizing trans people, they’d hit upon a winning strategy similar to their attack on gay marriage in 2004, which handed Ohio and a second term to President George W. Bush. They saw how much traction conservative media hit pieces on trans women in women’s sports and gender-affirming care for minors was getting and seem to have thought it would translate into wins at the ballot box.
Thus, Republicans pivoted to all-out attacks on everything trans. In the last year, hundreds of anti-trans bills were proposed and passed in red state legislatures, where conservative majorities were hard-wired into states’ election districting maps. At the same time conservatives were snatching away bodily autonomy by overturning the right to get an abortion, they sought to convince voters that they were there to protect them from the ever-present threat of a shadowy trans cabal trying to harm their kids.
They found some local success last election cycle.?A number of extremist candidates who were elected to large district school boards in places like Loudoun County and Fairfax, Virginia, or Bucks County, Pennsylvania, implemented harsh policies singling out transgender students.
But those school board majorities were largely wiped out Tuesday, with liberal, pro-equality candidates sweeping away the Moms for Liberty caucus in Loudoun and Bucks counties. “I think that that is a rejection of these policies and beliefs that public schools are bad,” said Brittania Morey, who was re-elected Tuesday to the Linn-Mar school board near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on anti-Moms for Liberty messaging. “It is a rejection of the belief that there is some sort of hidden agenda of indoctrination. None of that is happening.”
Despite claims by the right and many of its centrist media collaborators, transphobia does not win elections.
Beshear’s win was yet another loss for Schilling and the American Principles Project. He and that organization have spent millions of dollars over the last two election cycles attacking Democrats over their support of trans issues, and time and time again, their favored conservatives have gone down. Having ads paid for by Schilling run against your opponent is close to the kiss of death in today’s politics.
More generally, transphobia has always been an election loser for Republicans. Most infamous was the original transphobia (election) loser, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who lost the governor’s race even in the red wave that resulted in Donald Trump’s win in 2016.?McCrory lost after signing the infamous HB2 bathroom bill.
Over the last two election cycles, anti-trans candidates have lost nearly every swing-state race in which they’ve run, with only those in the most gerrymandered of red districts finding success. An exception is?Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the more prominent transphobes in the Republican Party. He cruised to re-election last year. But even he has seen his presidential run sputter as he has flailed about trying to find a message that resonates with the general public.
Even though this off-year election cycle reminds us that anti-trans policy positions don’t sway voters, it’s unlikely that Republicans, at this point, will turn away from that strategy?— at least not at the state level — this late in the game. But we should be pushing back against those who tell us that this is a complicated election issue that could be dangerous ground for Democrats.
Trans issues fall flat because most voters, even now, don’t personally know a trans person, and conservative attempts to demonize us haven’t succeeded. In addition, once a voter does meet a trans person, all that work at demonization tends to fall apart in voters’ minds. It’s the same paradox presented in the gay marriage debate of several decades ago.
As more and more people become familiar with trans people as human beings, more and more venom gets sapped from the GOP arguments against trans rights. Transphobia is an election loser, and it’s high time we recognized that fact, even if Republicans haven’t.