July 27, 2022

When House Democrats put a bill on the floor last week protecting same-sex marriage rights, something astonishing happened—nearly 50 House Republicans voted with Democrats to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, 267-157.

Sure, more than three times that number of Republicans voted against the bill, which would codify into federal law both interracial and same-sex marriage rights. But the unprecedented assist from House Republicans immediately made the bill a contender for floor time in the Senate based on the very real possibility of attracting the 10 Senate Republicans needed to beat an inevitable GOP filibuster.

Senate Republicans suddenly realized they had a political hot potato on their hands. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had been laboring to steer his caucus clear of divisive cultural hot-button issues in the lead up to November. McConnell needs Republicans to appear palatable enough to attract the support of the same suburban voters who largely abandoned the party during Donald Trump's disastrous tenure.

Indeed, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, arguably Senate Republicans’ most endangered member, bit the bullet Thursday and said he would vote for the marriage bill if it reached the floor of the upper chamber.

"Even though I feel the Respect for Marriage Act is unnecessary, should it come before the Senate, I see no reason to oppose it," Johnson said in a statement.

As a political party, Republicans have increasingly waved the white flag on same-sex marriage for the last handful of years. As a presidential candidate in 2016, for instance, Donald Trump pledged to nominate justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade in one breath only to claim in the next breath that the freedom to marry wouldn't be jeopardized by those very same judicial appointments.

"It’s law. It was settled in the Supreme Court. I mean it’s done," Trump said of marriage equality in November 2016.

Trump along with many Republican strategists wanted to wash their hands of an issue that quickly grew into a total political loser for them. Their evangelical backers, however, were never going to let it go. And sure enough, just as soon the radicalized Supreme Court majority took out Roe, same-sex marriage was back on the chopping block. In fact, Justice Clarence Thomas wasted no time putting a target on marriage rights in his concurrent opinion.

But here's where the GOP's fundies and their political strategists part ways. Today, marriage equality is a 70-30 loser for Republicans, a far cry from the wedge issue everyone thought it was in the mid-aughts. Yet, just days after that Supreme Court gutted Roe, none of the Michigan GOP's five gubernatorial candidates took up for marriage equality during a primary debate when asked about constitutional protections for gay rights.

“They need to revisit it all,” candidate Garrett Soldano said of LGBTQ rights at the debate in Warren, Michigan.

Several weeks later, however, two West Michigan Republican congressmen, freshman Rep. Peter Meijer and veteran lawmaker Rep. Fred Upton, became two of the 47 House Republicans who backed the Respect for Marriage Act in the successful House vote.

This is where congressional and state Republicans are diverging: At the national level, many Republicans are dodging, downplaying, or even supporting LGBTQ rights, but at the state level, Republicans are largely sticking to a virulent anti-LGBTQ strategy that hasn't yielded fruit as a wedge issue for well over a decade.

The fashion of the day for the state-level GOP bigots is to target a highly vulnerable subset of queer Americans—the transgender community, perhaps because the very same bigots already crashed and burned on marriage equality. As same-sex marriage slipped from their grasp, state GOP lawmakers have homed in with gusto on attacking transgender Americans and youth—who also suffer from disproportionately high levels of suicide. This year alone, Republicans have introduced over 300 bill aimed at restricting LGBTQ rights. The New York Times writes:

In June, Louisiana became the 18th state, all with G.O.P.-led legislatures, to ban transgender students from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity. Laws to prohibit transitioning medical treatments to people under 18, such as puberty blockers, hormones and surgeries — which advocates call gender-affirming care — have been enacted by four states. And after Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a law in March banning classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, more than a dozen other states moved to imitate it.

The bigots may have shifted their tactics slightly, but this is by no means the first time they have sought to resurrect a one-time political wedge issue through the lens of transgender issues.  

Enter Terry Schilling, president of the anti-LGBTQ group American Principles Project.

“I believe these are enormous issues for swing voters and moderates,” Schilling told the Times, saying that his group plans to spend up to $12 million on anti-trans ads before November.

"I believe" are truly the operative words in that sentence because this isn't Schilling's first rodeo.

Unfortunately for his donors, Schilling's theory of the case is already a two-time loser. In 2019, Schilling sought to use his strategery to help reelect Kentucky's incumbent GOP Gov. Matt Bevin. Schilling’s group focused on making ads that questioned whether “men” (i.e. transgender women and girls) should be allowed to use women's restrooms and participate in sports for women and girls. The idea was to paint Bevin’s Democratic rival Andy Beshear as “extreme” for supporting transgender rights. It failed. But when Bevin ultimately lost to Beshear in November 2019, Schilling's group commissioned its own study that apparently determined the organization’s anti-trans messaging cut Bevin's loss by 13,000 votes. The American Principles Project immediately morphed Bevin’s loss into a win for the group.

In the 2020 cycle, Schilling went to work selling that losing strategy as a silver bullet that could really turn things around for Trump with suburban voters and moderates.

“We wanted Bevin to win, but more than anything, we wanted to test this out before trying it at a much larger scale," Schilling told Politico in August 2020, as Trump's reelection prospects were dimming. "Now, donors understand that although we came up a few votes short in Kentucky, this can still work."

Only it didn't work in 2020 either—suburban voters mostly stuck with Democrats, forming a critical part of the anti-MAGA coalition that would eject Trump from office.

Now Schilling—who’s zero for two—is apparently back to working his wizardry. Maybe he figured he could piggy back off a good Republican cycle to finally claim credit for what was assumed would be a big GOP rout. Only once again, for all the energy Republicans have put into vilifying transgender Americans and brand Democrats as extremists for supporting them, voters just don’t seem persuaded.

In fact, recent polling suggests that a majority of Americans view Republicans as the real extremists. In May, a CBS New/YouGov poll, the top two words people chose to describe the Republican Party were "Extreme" (54%) and "Hateful" (50%). Respondents' top two choices for Democrats were "Weak" (51%) and "Extreme" (49%).

Polling this week from Navigator Research also found a 44% plurality of Americans agree that "people who support the Republican Party are inclined to resort to violence" in order to push their agenda. Just 35% said the same of Democrats.

The number of Americans who view Republicans as extreme—particularly the suburban swing voters that Schilling hopes to sway—is only likely to increase as Republicans at the state level continue targeting trans kids and same-sex marriage rights, devising draconian abortion bans, trying to place a stranglehold on birth control, and baselessly claiming widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

The Republican Party , whatever it once was, has quickly become the party of government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives. They want control over who Americans marry, their most intimate healthcare decisions, how and when they start a family, how they choose to raise that family, how they parent, the curriculum at their schools, and what books they can read. It is arguably the most the extreme agenda put forward by a party in modern American politics.

So despite what Schilling is selling to the press and his donors, targeting transgender Americans won’t pay off for Republicans at the ballot box this November, just like it didn’t work for former North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016, it didn’t work for former Kentucky Gov. Bevin in 2019, and it didn’t work for Trump in 2020.

In the meantime, the overt bigotry of state-level Republican officials and activists like Schilling will blow up any effort by some congressional Republicans to moderate on popular social issues like LGBTQ rights. At the national level, some Republicans may desperately want to move on, but their state counterparts are dedicated to reminding voters just how antiquated and extreme the entire party is on a host of social issues where voters recoil at the notion of government interference.

Republished with permission from Daily Kos.

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