By Katelyn Burns
Over the last two years, conservative politicians and their right-wing media counterparts have developed a near obsession with transgender issues, especially pertaining to trans kids. For these politicians, spreading harmful beliefs and inciting fear of trans people is an attempt to earn the votes of the valuable suburban voters the Republican party has failed to win in the last couple of elections.
However, Tuesday’s midterms proved their divisive strategy to be largely fruitless. Instead of the expected “red wave” of Republicans winning back control of the US Senate and House of Representatives, the GOP turned in a historically pathetic showing for a midterm election winning the House but losing the Senate. The disappointing result came in large part due to the party’s obsession with trans issues.
Ever since marriage equality became law of the land in 2015, the conservative movement has shifted its focus to marginalizing trans people under the law starting with the wave of bathroom bills in 2016 that mostly fell flat. The only state to enact a bathroom ban, North Carolina, saw its governor, Republican Pat McCrory, get run out of office even in 2016’s red wave election.
Similar attempts at banning trans students from school bathrooms failed in conservative legislatures in 2018 and 2020. Things seemed to have shifted in Republicans’ favor in 2021, as Glenn Youngkin rode a wave of parental frustration over covid restrictions and alleged critical race and gender theory teachings in schools to a victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race.
Finally, conservatives thought they had found their message for winning over purple-state suburbanites, and they leaned into it hard. By 2022, 18 states passed laws banning trans girls from girls’ school sports, and three states passed bans on transition care for trans youth. In other states, conservative candidates and PACs poured millions into scare-mongering ads claiming Democrats were trying to “trans your kids,” or wanted schools to turn kids transgender. The messaging was consistent from local school board elections all the way up to US Senate campaigns. That messaging fell mostly flat on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
There were, of course, exceptions. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both of whom took over-the-top executive actions to persecute trans youth and their families, both comfortably won re-election. Additionally, 24 of the 30 DeSantis-endorsed candidates for Florida school boards won.
In more moderate states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine, conservative candidates campaigned heavily on parental rights, with the implication of strongly opposing trans rights for youth. Each failed in winnable races.
While it’s difficult to tally results for local school board races, as they are often non-partisan races, it doesn’t appear that a majority of openly trans-hostile candidates swept into power.
In past elections, Democrats have been quick to blame trans people and our political existence for Democratic losses. An alleged focus on trans people was blamed for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, as well as moderate Democratic candidate losses in both 2018 and 2020. If the party had suffered heavy losses in this year’s midterms, trans people would likely have been very high on the Democratic blame list.
Instead, results went the other way. Despite unhappiness with President Joe Biden’s first two years, voters judged Republican candidates to be too extreme. Perhaps constant talk about trans kids’ genitals, or getting angry over drag queens was a bit over the top for suburban moms who like watching RuPaul’s Drag Race every week.
Never before has a national election had such a focus on trans issues. Many political experts were certain that Republicans had a winning anti-trans message, but even with Joe Biden’s unpopularity, Republican gains came largely due to the creation of newly gerrymandered conservative districts, not a convincing conservative message.
The Republican party will doubtless run an autopsy for how it failed so spectacularly, but it remains to be seen what conclusions will be drawn. There’s a great deal of conservative activist fundraising and media narratives at stake should the party abandon its hardline on trans existence. Anti-trans sentiment still runs high within the party base, and hardliners on the issue found a lot of success appealing to the party base with transphobic messaging during the primary season, only to see it fail in the general.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on how conservatives find a balance that feeds red meat to a trans-obsessed conservative party base without turning off moderates. There’s even a possibility that party leaders see Abbott and DeSantis’ success and decide they need to adopt an even more transphobic approach.
It’s easy for those of us in blue and purple states to look at Texas and Florida and write them off, but many of our trans siblings and their families will still be living in those places after the election. They will have no way to escape the wrath of the conservatives in power. As a trans community, we should be looking for ways to materially support those trapped under transphobic administrations, and, if possible, keep them safe from government persecution.
Featured Image by Ted Eytan.
Katelyn Burns (she/her) is a freelance journalist and columnist for MSNBC. She was the first openly transgender Capitol Hill reporter in US history.