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Trans athletes become campaign flashpoint for GOP

Republicans are zeroing in on the debate surrounding trans women in sports in hopes of revving up their conservative base ahead of November’s midterm elections.

The debate is emerging as the latest flashpoint in the country’s culture wars, with conservatives calling on transgender women to be banned from competing in women’s sports. University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the latest transgender athlete caught in the debate’s crosshairs after she became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division 1 national championship in any sport earlier this month.

Ohio Senate candidate Jane Timken invoked Thomas in a campaign ad criticizing rules allowing transgender women being allowed to compete in women’s sports. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who has been floated as a potential 2024 presidential contender, has also focused on the issue. In January, she rolled out an ad promoting legislation that would block transgender girls from playing on female sports teams at school.

“I think you’re going to see Republicans taking on a whole host of cultural issues that have been simmering for a while now,” said Terry Schilling, the executive director of the conservative group American Principles Project. “This is actually a result of a few decades of a … one-sided truce from Republicans really refusing to engage in any meaningful way on these hot-button cultural issues.”

The American Principles Project, which plans to be involved in Senate, House and gubernatorial races this cycle, says it has raised $6 million for its midterm election campaign and plans to make women’s sports a centerpiece of their messaging.

Some recent polling on the issue appears to be playing into conservatives’ hands.

A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey released to The Hill this week found that 63 percent of Americans said gender-transitioning athletes should not be allowed to take part in opposite-sex sporting events, while 37 percent said they should be allowed to compete.

However, the polling also showed stark partisan divides on the issue. Sixty percent of Democrats and 20 percent of Republicans said they believed gender-transitioning athletes should be allowed to participate in opposite-sex sporting events, while 40 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans said they should not be allowed. Among independents, 68 percent said they should not be allowed and 32 percent said they should be.

Transgender advocates argue that Democrats would be able to win on this issue if they adjusted their messaging and worked to educate voters.

“Republicans haven’t been effective based on the arguments,” said writer and trans activist Charlotte Clymer. “I think they’ve been effective in rallying their base because there’s a vacuum of information and leadership on this topic from Democrats.”

“Because so many Democrats running for office are scared of this issue and afraid to engage on it, voters are getting really one side of the entire argument,” she added.

In his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Biden called for the passage of the Equality Act amid state legislatures drafting legislation preventing trans female athletes from competing in girl’s and women’s sports. 

Clymer argued that that sentiment has not translated to down-ballot Democratic lawmakers and candidates.

“I think in their minds they do support trans rights, but they’re intimidated by the issue because they don’t know a lot about trans people to begin with,” she said. “Unfortunately, because most of the country has this fifth grade understanding of biology, they don’t get that the vast majority of medical insights and authorities validate trans people and say that we absolutely have the right to be in all of these spaces, including sports.”

It’s not just the issue of trans women in sports that conservatives are seizing on. This week, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), another potential 2024 contender, signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, also known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, into law. The law prohibits discussions about gender and sexuality in primary school classrooms.

Republicans tout the law as a protection for parents’ rights, but its opponents say it leaves LGBTQ students in a vulnerable and unsafe position.

“Because they saw that it worked in Virginia, they believe that this is ‘our way to win elections,’ which is only a guise for people who don’t understand the process,” said Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), a vocal critic of the Florida law.

Jones warned that while Democrats should hit back at Republicans regarding the culture war issues and advocate for LGBTQ rights, they should also be disciplined in focusing on issues like the economy.

“We go into very dangerous territory where we allow them to fetch us the bait and we take it,” he said.

And GOP leaders appear to be laser-focused on those issues. When asked whether he expects to see Republican candidates touching on cultural issues, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that while each district varies, “kitchen table” issues will be dominant in national GOP messaging.

“The issues aren’t going to change,” Emmer said. “It’s going to be about the economy, it’s going to be about inflation.”

But conservative activists argue that it’s the cultural issues that are the kitchen table issues.

“It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the culture, stupid. And it’s our children, stupid,” Schilling, of the American Principles Project, said. “Those are the issues that are going to win out the day in 2022.” 

Tags Jane Timken Joe Biden Kristi Noem Lia Thomas Ron DeSantis Tom Emmer trans athletes

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