The Republican Party has always leaned on culture war issues to win elections, but for the past three years, since Joe Biden won office in 2020, an aggressive and virulent form of culture war demagoguery has been at the center of Republican political strategy.
If the results of Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio tell us anything, however, it’s that this post-Roe form of culture warring is an abject failure, an approach that repels and alienates voters far more than it appeals to or persuades them.
To be fair to Republican strategists, there was a moment, in the fall of 2021, when it looked as if the plan was working. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia, ran on a campaign of “parents’ rights” against “critical race theory” and won a narrow victory against Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic governor, sweeping Republicans into power statewide for the first time since 2009. Youngkin shot to national prominence, and Republicans made immediate plans to take the strategy to every competitive race in the country.
In 2022, with “parental rights” as their rallying cry, Republican lawmakers unleashed a barrage of legislation targeting transgender rights, and Republican candidates ran explicit campaigns against transgender and other gender-nonconforming people. “They kicked God out of schools and welcomed the drag queens,” said Kari Lake, an Arizona Republican, during her 2022 campaign for governor. “They took down our flag and replaced it with a rainbow.”
Republican candidates and political committees spent millions of dollars attacking gender-affirming care for minors and transgender participation in youth sports. Republican opponents of Michigan’s initiative to protect abortion access in the state warned voters that it would give transgender youths the right to obtain certain forms of care without parental consent. An ad aired in opposition to Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat running for re-election to the House that year, portrayed gender-affirming care as a way to “chemically castrate” children.
Lake lost her race. Michigan voters amended their state Constitution to protect the right to an abortion. Spanberger won re-election, too. Overall, election night 2022 was a serious disappointment for the Republican Party, which failed to win a Senate majority and barely won control of the House of Representatives. The hoped-for red wave was little more than a puddle. The culture war strategy had fallen flat on its face.
Undaunted, Republicans stepped back up to the plate and took another swing at transgender rights. Attorney General Daniel Cameron of Kentucky, the Republican nominee for governor of that state, and his allies spent millions on anti-transgender-rights ads in his race against the Democratic incumbent, Andy Beshear. In one television ad, a narrator warns viewers of a “radical transgender agenda” that’s “bombarding our children everywhere we turn.” Beshear won re-election.
Youngkin was not on the ballot in Virginia, but he led the effort to win a Republican trifecta in the state, targeting Democrats once again on “parents’ rights” and endorsing candidates who ran hard against transgender inclusion in schools. “No more are we going to make parents stand outside of the room,” Youngkin said to a crowd of Republicans on Monday at a rally in Leesburg. “We are going to put them at the head of the table in charge of our children’s lives.”
One Youngkin-endorsed candidate for State Senate, Juan Pablo Segura, told Fox News that he wants to revisit a failed bill that would have required schools to notify parents if there was any hint a child was interested in transgender identity.
Segura lost his race, and Youngkin and his fellow Republicans failed to flip the State Senate or hold on to the House of Delegates. He’ll face Democratic majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly for the rest of his term.
Some Ohio Republicans also tried to turn their fight against a reproductive rights initiative into a battle over transgender rights, falsely stating that the wording of a proposed state constitutional amendment would allow minors to obtain gender-affirming surgeries without parental consent. On Tuesday, Ohio voters backed the initiative, 56 percent to 43 percent.
I can think of three reasons that voters — going back to the 2016 North Carolina governor’s race, fought over the state’s “bathroom bill” — have not responded to Republican efforts to make transgender rights a wedge issue.
There’s the fact that transgender people account for a tiny fraction of the population; they just aren’t all that relevant to the everyday lives of most Americans. There’s also the fact that for all the talk of “parents’ rights,” the harshest anti-trans laws trample on the rights of parents who want to support their transgender children.
Additionally — and ironically, given the Republican Party’s strategic decision to link the two — there’s the chance that when fused with support for abortion bans, vocal opposition to the rights of transgender people becomes a clear signal for extremist views. The vibe is off, one might say, and voters have responded accordingly.
If the Republican Party were a normal political party that was still capable of strategic adjustment, I’d say to expect some rhetorical moderation ahead of the presidential election. But consider the most recent Republican presidential debate — held on Wednesday — in which candidates continued to emphasize their opposition to the inclusion of transgender people in mainstream American life. “If God made you a man, you play sports against men,” declared Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, at the conclusion of the debate.
So I suppose that when the next election comes around, we should just expect more of the same.
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