IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

GOP candidates unleash wave of ads targeting transgender rights

The explosion of campaign advertising coincides with a sharp increase in legislation to limit LGBTQ rights in states led by Republicans.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

Two leading Republican Senate hopefuls in Pennsylvania are savaging each other in TV ads over who supported transgender surgery more. In Missouri, another GOP candidate for Senate surged when she criticized transgender swimmer Lia Thomas in a commercial. And in Alabama, a charter school for transgender kids has been invoked in ads as an issue in the Republican primary for governor.

Like never before, Republicans in primaries across the country have made attacking transgender rights central to their paid media campaigns and stump speeches — focusing on issues of education, gender transitioning and sports, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact.

In all, 21 candidates and political committees have so far spent at least $4.5 million on TV ads that have run in various media markets of 16 states, according to AdImpact. The firm also found that Democratic candidates spent nothing on TV advertising to rebut the attacks. Two transgender ally groups aired ads opposing laws in Texas and Florida, and advocates limited more of their paid media to relatively small Facebook buys.

The explosion of campaign advertising coincides with a dramatic increase in legislation limiting LGBTQ rights — mostly in regard to transgender people, sports and medical treatments, known as gender-affirming care, for youths — in states led by Republicans, making the issue a front line in the nation’s culture wars fought in local, state and federal elections this year and in courts throughout the nation for years to come.

On Friday, a federal judge blocked an Alabama law banning transgender children from receiving puberty blockers and hormones. The judge left in place a ban on gender-affirming surgeries for minors, which doctors have said aren't performed in the state anyway. On the same day, the Texas Supreme Court allowed state officials to investigate parents and doctors for potential child abuse if they’re given the medical treatments or surgeries.

Fifteen states began considering restrictions on gender-affirming care after the first such law was passed last year in Arkansas, where the GOP-led Legislature overrode Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto to enact it. The law has been on hold for a year ever since a federal judge blocked it.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signaled his interest in banning trans children from receiving puberty blockers or undergoing surgery. Florida became the eighth state last year to sign a ban on transgender athletes competing in girls and women’s sports in secondary schools and college. At least 15 states so far have a similar transgender sports ban.

Republican consultants say the GOP will continue pressing the issue in general election contests and in state capitals across the nation. The sports bans, which began widely surfacing in 2021 following an early President Joe Biden order concerning gender identity or sexual orientation protections, generally garner majority support from Republicans and independents in most public opinion surveys, with just Democrats and the youngest voters opposed.

"Voters overall are nowhere near Democrats on this and the hard woke left. There’s a biological difference between men and women," said Curt Anderson, a top consultant for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pointing to polling from his firm, OnMessage Inc.

“Once in a while, you find an issue that is your opponent’s Achilles' heel, where they’re way over their skis," Anderson added. "Democrats are stuck on this, because if they step out of line, they get smacked as transphobic.”

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, acknowledged the challenges of negative public opinion when it comes to advocating for the rights of trans people — especially athletes — and characterized the Republican onslaught as an example of "anti-LGBT ideologues who are taking advantage of people's naïveté [about transgender people] as an opportunity to take scare them."

But, he predicted, limits on transgender athletes and other civil rights will go the way of racial segregation in sports and bans on gay marriage.

“It goes to show that things that are shocking — or maybe even seem unacceptable at first — really dissolve and turn out to be no big deal in the end,” he said.

Public opposition to transgender rights varies by the poll, with some showing closer margins and others wider splits in opinion. A PBS Newshour-NPR-Marist College poll last year found most voters opposed laws limiting transgender rights.

But Republicans have paid little price in public-opinion polling as they've limited transgender rights, and they see few reasons to stop pushing forward with the bans, which captured headlines in March when swimmer Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania blew away competitors to become the first transgender woman to capture an NCAA Division 1 title.

Within a week of Thomas’ win, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a client of Anderson’s who is running in the GOP primary for Senate in Missouri, became the first Senate candidate in the nation to make the swimmer a campaign issue in a statewide ad that juxtaposed the athlete's win-loss records.

DeSantis promptly issued a proclamation declaring Thomas’ opponent, Floridian Emma Weyant, the real winner.

Robert Cahaly, a Republican pollster who’s neutral in the Missouri race, told NBC News that his polling indicated Hartzler initially surged into top contention in the crowded primary because of the ad but has now slipped to third.

Stephen Webber, political director of the AFL-CIO in Missouri, said he understands why Democrats may be reticent to speak out against Republicans on these issues: The polling isn’t on their side, and it's fraught with rhetorical landmines.

“I think everybody’s nervous about the right way to talk about it. It’s a sensitive issue. And when you’re being supportive, you don’t want to use the wrong word and set off a trip wire,” Webber said. “So some people have determined that the easiest thing to do is not talk about it.”

That relative silence — both in paid media and in public discourse — concerns Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project.

“I am worried that we’re not responding aggressively enough. As someone who’s an organizer and a longtime advocate, it’s not a political response needed necessarily. It’s not necessarily the Democrats firing back,” Strangio said. “It’s a massive cultural response, which is what I’m trying to do: to mobilize people to say, and as women athletes are out here now saying, ‘This isn’t about me. Don’t use my name for this.’”

To that end, the ACLU partnered in a social media campaign with women’s soccer legend Megan Rapinoe and her partner, professional basketball player Sue Bird.

On Facebook, however, pro-transgender rights groups outspent opponents by 84-16 percent from January through April, according to the Democratic ad-tracking firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, which identified nearly $231,000 in spending on the platform over the issue. 

The firm found that the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign organized in opposition to the moves by Texas and Florida, built lists of followers and fundraised. One of the biggest spenders: Facebook itself, which dropped $47,500 to celebrate visibility for trans people.

On the other side, the conservative Daily Wire publication spent about $33,000 promoting what Bully Pulpit classified as anti-trans stories.

“Trans-supportive groups are using this moment to urge action, while the digital spend on the Right comes from individual rightwing personalities looking to capitalize and draft behind a hot button moment,” Jessica Reis, Bully Pulpit’s managing director, said in a statement.

When Florida lawmakers prepared to pass their law this spring inhibiting teachers from discussing LGBTQ issues with students, the AIDS Health Care Foundation spent a modest $63,000 on advertising against the "hateful" proposal.

The only other TV ad defending transgender people began airing last month, when the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation launched a 60-second public service announcement. It featured Texas mom Amber Briggle, who criticized “some politicians who are trying to tear my family apart simply because my son is transgender.” It was aired with donated time from Comcast NBCUniversal, NBC News' parent company, along with donated time from Paramount, WarnerMedia, The Walt Disney Co. and the Ad Council, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

Weeks before the ad was released, Briggle said her family was questioned by Texas child welfare officials, tasked by Gov. Greg Abbott, in response to an opinion from state Attorney General Ken Paxton, to investigate parents of transgender children for possible child abuse if their kids receive gender “reassignment surgeries that can cause sterilization, mastectomies, removals of otherwise healthy body parts" or are administered "puberty-blocking drugs or … doses of testosterone or estrogen.”

The order, issued by Abbott in the waning days of his primary campaign and opposed by medical and psychological associations who say gender-affirming care protects the mental well-being of transgender children, was blocked by a court in March that said the investigations could cause “irreparable harm.”

On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the investigations could continue, but it said that neither Abbott nor Paxton had the authority to order the investigations. Paxton, who faces a primary runoff March 24, hailed the ruling on Twitter. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, meanwhile, was the first candidate this cycle to advertise his opposition to transgender athletes in women’s sports by airing a commercial in early February.

Image: Mehmet Oz
Dr. Mehmet Oz speaks at the 'Save America' rally in Greensburg, Pa, May 6, 2022.Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In the waning days of Pennsylvania’s Senate primary, a super PAC backing Republican Mehmet Oz swiped at Dave McCormick, a venture capitalist, for running a company that “covered transgender surgeries.” McCormick hit back at the celebrity TV doctor with clips from his show of Oz neutrally discussing those who would “surgically change the gender of their child.”

Those old Oz shows have now been removed from the internet. GLAAD praised Oz at the time. Oz now sounds more negative, noting at a recent town hall event that “we’re already seeing litigation in kids who have been treated with different approaches to transgender health with medications as well as surgery.”

In all of the four ads Oz has run concerning transgender issues, all focus on transgender athletes in women’s sports. A Franklin & Marshall College Poll released last month showed that 64 percent of Pennsylvania voters were opposed to trans women competing in women’s sports; 29 percent approved.

Tony Fabrizio, who polls for former President Donald Trump and other top Republicans, said his survey work suggests voters oppose trans athletes in women’s sports — even in California last year when he surveyed for GOP gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic athlete and TV celebrity who is transgender but opposed Thomas competing against women.

“This is an issue of fundamental fairness,” Fabrizio said. “I don’t see that changing.”

In Utah, the GOP Legislature passed a bill barring transgender athletes in high school and middle school girls’ sports and overrode the veto of Republican Gov. Spencer Cox. Cox wrote in a letter explaining his veto that those born male have athletic advantages over girls, but he fretted about demonizing trans children, who have high suicide rates, and noted only four of them play high school sports.

“That’s what all of this is about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships,” he wrote in his veto message. “Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few.” 

In Alabama, the Republican primary for governor has seen 11 ads invoking transgender-related issues. A candidate in the state's GOP Senate primary ran one as well. That’s more than any other state, according to AdImpact.

Gov. Kay Ivey has run two ads that mention she signed a ban on transgender athletes in women and girls sports, with one commercial emphasizing she made “transgender surgery on children in Alabama” a felony, without mentioning those procedures aren’t done in the state.

The law’s ban on gender-affirming medications for kids was blocked Friday.

Despite Ivey's record limiting trans rights, her two Republican opponents, Lindy Blanchard and Tim James, have attacked her because of the existence of the Magic City Acceptance Academy, a Birmingham charter school that bills itself as an LGBTQ-affirming learning environment. The school says about 10 percent of the students identify as transgender.

After James featured the school in one of his attack adsmisleadingly describing it as “the first transgender public school in the South" — founding principal Michael Wilson told local media that he had to hire extra security and that one man yelled slurs at students while another person in a separate incident was video-recording the school.

“I just could not believe that someone would use a school and misrepresent it,” Wilson told CBS42, noting that most students who attend do not identify as LGBTQ.

But veteran political operators like Webber in Missouri acknowledge that it’s probably good short-term politics for Republicans for now, especially during this midterm election season when Democrats are bracing for widespread losses and Republicans are on offense.

“That’s the whole story of civil rights: Something that seems impossible 40 years ago now seems mainstream,” he said. “But you may pay an electoral price getting there.”