“This issue will help [the] GOP win midterms,” said Stephen Miller, the former Trump White House aide who helped write his CPAC speech.
Some Republicans say touting the issue will unite two key elements of a winning electoral coalition: the party’s socially conservative base, which mostly rejects the expansion of gay and transgender rights, and more moderate voters in the suburbs, who are less reliable GOP supporters but may revolt against what they see as Democratic overreach.
“It’s a cross-cutting issue,” Miller added. “Biden’s activist staff are clearly making him embrace policies that alienate non-ideological voters.”
But Republicans’ claim as defenders of women’s sports is a tenuous one, at best. For the duration of Trump’s presidency, he was largely at odds with women athletes at the collegiate and professional levels, with most championship teams refusing to visit the White House in protest of his policies and personal treatment of women. And just last month, former appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who introduced a bill last September to prohibit transgender women from competing in gender-segregated sports, sold her stake in Atlanta’s WNBA franchise after the players on the team openly campaigned for the Democrat who defeated her, now-Sen. Raphael Warnock, in a special election in January.
“If Republicans are thoughtfully talking about this — by being supportive of transgender Americans while identifying an equity issue — it could be attractive to more moderate suburban voters. But if it’s introduced cruelly or as a way to ‘shame the libs,’ this isn’t going to be helpful,” said veteran GOP strategist Rob Stutzman.
Several prominent Republican officials and potential 2024 hopefuls have already begun testing messages around women’s sports. Some claim transgender women enjoy performance advantages over their cisgender teammates and competitors, and could thus cause the latter group to lose out on scholarships and collegiate opportunities. Currently, the National Collegiate Athletic Association requires transgender women to undergo 12 months of treatment to suppress testosterone before they are permitted to compete with other women.
Others claim trans-inclusive sports policies are an infringement on women’s rights or a violation of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that paved the way for women’s equality in sports and education.
“Across the sporting world, the game is being rigged against women and in favor of biological men,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is widely expected to launch a 2024 presidential bid, wrote in a National Review op-ed last month.
Haley accused Biden of “paving the way for a federal mandate that all schools receiving federal funding let biological men play on women’s sports teams” after he signed an executive order to curtail discrimination against LGBTQ people in healthcare, housing and schools at the beginning of his term. “The order was framed as a matter of transgender rights. But really, it was an attack on women’s rights.”
The issue has been percolating at the state level since early 2020, when several Republican-led states began pushing for bills to limit or ban the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports. But the recent attention is part of a sharper focus on cultural issues that conservatives believe could resonate with the swing-state suburbanites whose support the GOP hemorrhaged last fall.
“This is the wedge issue that will bring suburban women back to the polls and increase their support for Republicans, and Republicans would be foolish not to lean into it,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a socially conservative group that has been privately urging Republicans to take on the subject since last year.
“I hear from mothers all the time who are getting up at the crack of dawn to take their daughters to swim practice or attending all-weekend track meets, and they do not want biological men competing on their daughters’ teams. They know that it would be detrimental to their daughters’ abilities to achieve scholarships and recognition,” Nance added.
Much of the GOP rhetoric surrounding women’s sports can be traced to Biden’s efforts on LGTBQ issues during his first weeks as president and the recent House passage of the Equality Act, which would expand anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans. In addition to taking executive action, Biden recently directed his administration to withdraw government support for a lawsuit against the state of Connecticut that seeks to block transgender athletes from competing in girls’ high school sports.
Proponents of the House bill and Biden’s actions dismissed conservative efforts to use women’s sports as a cudgel against Democrats as cruel and unlikely to yield the results Republicans desire in next year’s midterm elections.
“If Republicans want to earn the votes of suburban women, the issue that’s going to do it for them is being effective on issues that folks are having to confront at the dinner table. This is not that issue,” said Kate Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.
Oakley also cited the Connecticut court case as a reason to reject GOP “fear-mongering” around women’s sports, noting that Selina Soule, the lead plaintiff in the case, is now a track athlete at the College of Charleston. Oakley also pointed to recent instances in which Republican state legislators who have backed bills to ban transgender women from competing in women’s sports have struggled to identify cases in their own states where an issue arose over a transgender athlete.
“This is an issue that’s completely manufactured,” Oakley said. “There are certainly folks who have daughters who are truly college-bound — and then there are parents who, let’s be honest, think that their daughters are. The time has passed for these arguments, and they’re going to fall apart really quickly.”
But conservative operatives who are hoping that Republicans will maintain a focus on women’s sports in the coming months claimed that they are simply adopting an approach first used by their political opponents.
“This is what Democrats do so well that Republicans don’t,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, a group that launched anti-transgender ads about women’s sports during the 2019 Kentucky gubernatorial race and 2020 general election. “They bring up the statistic of violence against transgender people — and you look at the numbers, and it’s, like, 40 people.” (An HRC report published last November identified at least 37 instances in which transgender or gender non-confirming people were killed in 2020).
One potential roadblock for Republicans who have latched onto women’s sports as a new wedge issue — from Haley and Trump to Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — is that a growing number of GOP voters support nondiscrimination laws and protections for LGBTQ Americans. For example, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute last year found that 61 percent of Republicans supported nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans, up 5 percentage points from the year prior.
Republicans aren’t unanimously behind the strategy. Two sources familiar with the matter said Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel was part of a coalition of Trump advisers who encouraged the former president not to wade into transgender issues during his reelection campaign. And in response to a POLITICO inquiry over whether the RNC has any plans for messaging around women’s sports, spokesperson Mandi Merritt offered no indication that the committee would join Republican lawmakers and governors in their criticism of trans-inclusive sports policies.
“Republicans are proud to have doubled our LGBT support over the last four years, and we will continue to grow our big tent by supporting measures that promote fairness and effectively balance protections for LGBT Americans and those with deeply held religious beliefs,” Merritt said in an emailed statement.
Meanwhile, Stutzman warned that current figures who are talking about transgender issues — including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who hung a sign outside her Capitol Hill office last week that read, “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. Trust the science!” — have failed to introduce “a nuanced perspective” and run the risk of making the GOP appear generally transphobic.
“Every once in a while there’s an issue that has people frustrated even outside of the culture wars, and I think there is probably political grounds to be gained in the suburbs if Republicans across the spectrum can approach this correctly,” he said.
The topic already appears to be gaining attention among GOP candidates who are looking to make inroads with suburban voters while also burnishing their conservative credentials. In a fundraising email sent to her supporters this week, Ohio Senate candidate Jane Timken, a staunch Trump supporter and former state GOP chair, accused Democrats of pursuing “a mission to create a completely UNFAIR playing field for young girls and women.”