Heading into Tuesday’s off-year elections, and with an eye to 2024, Republicans have been searching for an issue that can motivate voters to flock to the polls the way abortion rights have galvanized Democrats since the fall of Roe. It is now clear one thing is not effective: anti-trans messaging.
While trans rights were not directly on the ballot in Tuesday’s elections, conservatives in several key races nevertheless crafted their message around anti-trans sentiments, many of which were misleading. Republicans, for example, wrongly accused Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear—a Democrat running for re-election in the otherwise very red state—of supporting minors obtaining gender reassignment surgeries. Anti-abortion activists tried to frame Ohio Issue 1, a ballot measure to establish abortion rights in the state’s constitution, as a runway to allowing minors to undergo gender-affirming operations. (The ballot measure had nothing to do with gender-affirming care).
Neither of these claims were based in reality. And neither delivered social conservatives the wins for which they hoped. In fact, anti-trans platforms failed to deliver positive electoral outcomes in every key race in which they were tested, from the Rust Belt to the South. Here’s what Republicans tried, and how it worked out.
On Tuesday night, Beshear defeated GOP challenger Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron by a wide margin (5 points as of Wednesday morning), winning a second term.
One of the loudest arguments against Beshear’s re-election was the claim that he supported gender-affirming care surgeries for children under 18. Beshear, a deacon at a Christian church, had vetoed one of the country’s strictest anti-trans bills in late March. The legislation included measures to ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools; require schools to forbid trans students from using bathrooms not matching their assigned gender at birth; require doctors to de-transition minors using hormonal therapy; ban gender-affirming medical care for minors, including hormone therapy, puberty blockers, and gender reassignment surgery; and allow teachers to refuse to call trans students by their selected pronouns.
The Republican-led legislature overrode Beshear’s veto and the anti-trans bill became law the same month. But in the run-up to the November 7 elections, Republicans seized on Beshear’s veto, characterizing it as an indication that he supports gender reassignment surgery among minors. The narrator of one anti-Beshear advertisement said the governor “would allow sex changes for children as young as 8 and 9 years old” if re-elected.
Even before the law took effect, there was no record of minors receiving genital reassignment surgeries in Kentucky. And Beshear vetoed the bill not because he supports gender reassignment surgeries for minors, but because he said the bill constitutes “too much government interference in personal healthcare issues” and “rips away the freedom of parents to make medical decisions for their children.”
“My position on this has always been clear,” Beshear told a reporter. “I have never supported gender reassignment surgery for minors, and they don’t happen in Kentucky.”
In 2021, Moms For Liberty, a far-right group opposing LGBTQ+ issues being discussed in schools, took credit for electing “school board members that value parental rights” to hold majorities in eight of 13 school districts in Bucks County, an affluent area comprised of suburbs and farmlands about an hour north of Philadelphia. Among those school districts was Central Bucks County, the fourth-largest school district in the state, which went on to pass measures banning LGBTQ+ pride flags in classrooms and books with “sexualized content” in school libraries with its newfound Moms For Liberty-endorsed majority.
According to a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis, Democrats and Republicans collectively raised more than $600,000 for the normally low-visibility Central Bucks County school board race this cycle. Some of that money was used to fund a PAC that assailed Democrats by sending houses mailers with images depicting sexual content from banned books like Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, and This Book Is Gay, by Juno Dawson. (Before their removal from school shelves, these books were only available at schools with older students.)
“Extreme Central Bucks Democrats are fighting to keep these books in our middle school and high school libraries,” the flier read. “Request an early vote ballot to protect our children!”
Democrats won all five open seats on the Central Bucks County board Tuesday, giving Democrats a newfound majority after an exorbitantly expensive campaign stretch.
Ohio voted in favor of Issue 1 on Tuesday, enshrining abortion rights in Ohio’s constitution.
The state currently has a six-week abortion ban without exemptions for rape or incest, though it was on hold in the courts. The affirmative vote for the ballot measure means that Ohioans will now have the right to contraception, fertility treatment, miscarriage care, and abortion at least through fetal viability.
After several reproductive rights victories in other states that have voted on abortion ballot measures, the anti-abortion movement tried to characterize Ohio’s Issue 1 as something that would take away parents’ rights to decide if their children could obtain abortions or undergo sexual reassignment treatment.
“Your daughter is young, vulnerable, online… Pushed to change her sex, or to get an abortion,” an advertisement by Protect Women Ohio, an anti-choice group said. “You have some right to help her through this, but activists want to take all that away.”
The amendment text, in fact, says nothing about gender-affirming care, nor anything about invalidating Ohio’s existing law requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions.
Nonetheless, the misleading framing did not work. Issue 1 passed in Ohio by a sizable 57 to 43 margin as of Wednesday.
Democrats won big in Virginia Tuesday, with the party holding their state senate majority and picking up majority control in the statehouse. Among their victories was that of Virginia delegate Danica Roem, who won her election to the state senate.
In 2017, Roem became the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature. Tuesday, she won her state senate seat against Republican opponent Bill Woolf, who had campaigned on banning trans athletes from participating in school sports, and sent mailers urging Virginians to vote “against Danica Roem and her reckless ‘boys in girls’ spaces’ policies.’”
Roem’s margin of victory was greater than 3 points as of Wednesday.
Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, which aims to elect LGBTQ+ people to public office, said Roem’s win Tuesday was a “deafening rebuke to bigots who continue to try and silence the LGBTQ+ community and trans people in particular.”
“Danica faced an unprecedented deluge of anti-trans hate on the campaign trail, but she was not phased nor distracted,” Parker added in a statement.