Anti-trans attacks aren’t the winning election issue the right thinks it is

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Republicans are waging war against the transgender community, believing that they have a winning electoral strategy.

In terms of causing both physical and emotional damage, they have succeeded, as states like North Carolina and Missouri have banned gender-affirming treatment for minors. But the attacks may not be quite the brilliant campaign tactic that the GOP thinks it has. If anything, Republicans are finding that they may have gone too far. Moreover, based on history, attacking the trans community may be more of a losing proposition at the ballot box than Republicans believe.

The current run of attacks on the trans community is sadly not out of the ordinary. With Republicans dominating in several states, they can pretty much do whatever they want legislatively, with few repercussions. The result is a spate of bills that cover not just medical treatment but bathroom policies and even what children can call themselves in school.

Virginia presents the most interesting case of how far Republicans can go in pushing their anti-trans policies. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) won his election in 2021 largely by pushing a “parents’ rights” agenda during his campaign. Youngkin was pretty tight-lipped about what that meant, preferring to traffic in generalities. Once elected, however, it was clear that Youngkin was targeting LGBTQ+ students, especially trans students.

That hasn’t gone over well in parts of the state. School districts in heavily Democratic areas of Virginia are refusing to follow the anti-trans policies that Youngkin pushed through, and there is little he can do about it.

The bigger issue for Youngkin is that he is now on record for having turned a vague campaign line into a specific, hateful policy. While he is still popular in the state, that makes him vulnerable when he comes up for re-election.

In Indiana, parents are irritated that schools there are requiring them to fill out paperwork if their kid wants to use a nickname, all in an effort to prevent trans kids from using a different name in school without informing their parents. This is the kind of bureaucratic nightmare that results from desperation to police trans kids. It’s also the kind of stuff that parents remember less than fondly next time an election rolls around.

Theoretically, using anti-trans issues at the ballot box is a way to juice evangelical turnout. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, however.

In an effort to boost its failing efforts, supporters of a proposed Ohio constitutional amendment tried to make it about transgender rights, saying it would let children have “sex changes.” The amendment was really an effort to prevent abortion from being protected in the state constitution, and voters resoundingly defeated it.

Republicans have relied on similar transphobic messages in campaigns in Michigan and Wisconsin. In Michigan, the issue again was an initiative to protect abortion rights, which the right said would lead to 12-year-olds having gender reassignment without telling their parents.

The Wisconsin election involved a race for state Supreme Court justice, which was again seen as pivotal to protect a woman’s right to choose. The right once again said that an “innocent” 12-year-old  “transitioned into a boy by school officials without parental consent.” (He asked for different pronouns.)

In all three elections, the right lost by huge margins.

The fact of the matter is that, for most Americans, trans issues are not going to be front-and-center in motivating how they vote. For Republicans, trans issues are often just shorthand for “woke,” which means whatever the listener wants it to mean. For a small subset of voters, it means a lot. For most voters, it doesn’t really matter much at all.

The problem for the GOP is that it resides in a bubble where the small subset has outsized influence. For that group, nothing is more important than winning the culture war.

For most voters, bread-and-butter issues matter more. Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who is the mother of a trans son, told The Hill that her party should stop with the attacks and focus on the real issues.

“There are so many crucial challenges that hard-working American families are facing every day but instead of coming up with viable solutions to real problems, such as the high cost of food and the unaffordability of housing, many legislators, especially at the state level, are obsessing over how they can make the lives of endangered youth even more perilous,” she said. “Intolerance is not a good look on anyone. I remain optimistic that voters will see through this charade and will encourage their elected officials to solve the real problems of America instead of masquerading as Moral Police Officers.”

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