Where Things Stand: Post-Roe, Trans Issues May Be GOP’s Next Evangelical Energizing Vehicle

This your TPM evening briefing.
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 30: Jodi Womack holds a sign that reads "We Love Our Trans Youth" during a rally at the Alabama State House to draw attention to anti-transgender legislation introduced in Alabama on March 30, ... MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 30: Jodi Womack holds a sign that reads "We Love Our Trans Youth" during a rally at the Alabama State House to draw attention to anti-transgender legislation introduced in Alabama on March 30, 2021 in Montgomery, Alabama. There are so far 192 anti-LGBTQ bills under consideration in state legislatures across the United States. Of those, 93 directly target transgender people. (Photo by Julie Bennett/Getty Images) MORE LESS

For weeks we’ve been watching Republicans squirm to find a messaging balance.

The party as a whole is attempting to walk a bizarre tightrope as leaders try to downplay Republicans’ unadulterated joy at the defeat of Roe, a social issue the GOP’s been using as a policy placeholder for decades, in the face of our evidence-backed reality: support for abortion access is at a record high among Americans across the political spectrum.

But political observers also have their eye on what’s next. Yes, on the abortion front, but broadly, what social issue will Republicans latch onto with the same devotion and ferocity that Roe provided the party for decades on end? In terms of longevity, overturning Roe was a perfect target for the GOP. And over the decades, anti-abortion activists did a lot of the work for Republicans in cementing the issue as the main course at the GOP’s policy messaging dinner table.

Hyper-focus on overturning Roe was unique in its long game rallying cry. It took years and years of strategic messaging and shady GOP obstruction to get President Trump to the place he needed to be to gift the Supreme Court its current uber-conservative majority. It also took a lot of focus and coherent rhetoric to explain to Republicans voters, but primarily evangelical voters, why every presidential election mattered; why every down-ballot vote for a Republican was a vote in support of the end goal.

It’s conventional wisdom at this point, but messaging around the GOP effort to dismantle abortion rights began in the 1970s in the early days of forming what we now know as the “religious right” voting group. The goal was simple: solidify conservative evangelical voters’ devotion to the Republican Party. As The 19th notes here, abortion was just one of several social issues conservatives used to test passion and voter turnout among evangelicals after the landmark ruling codified abortion as a federal right. But LGBTQ+ issues and the rights of religious academic institutions also earned high marks as priorities among evangelical voters back then. Not much has shifted.

Dartmouth professor and author of the book, “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of Religious Right,” Randall Balmer recently told The 19th that the marketing industry truths about what sells rings true when applied to voter turnout efforts in general, but specifically in the effort to keep evangelicals returning to the polls as a cohesive voting bloc: sex sells.

“As they were searching for different issues, I think they understood that any issue that had some sort of connection to sexuality or sexual behavior was going to work for them,” Balmer told The 19th. 

“They have an interest in keeping the base riled up about one thing or another, and when one issue fades, as with same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage, they’ve got to find something else,” Balmer said, puzzling over what the next GOP target might be. “It’s almost frantic.” 

Trans issues may well best fill the void the GOP is looking to fill heading into 2024 and beyond, Balmer said. While LGBTQ+ rights and equality are increasingly popular issues among Americans, the anti-trans bills popping up in red states across the union are not only feeding the GOP’s longtime strength in fueling divisiveness, but the bills are also written intentionally vague, with a Republican legislature in many cases passing language into law that don’t even mention the word “transgender” in the fist place.

If messaging around Roe taught the party anything it’s this: grievance-laced cultural uproar lacking in nuance is compelling. The key is crafting a unified message that properly articulates the evil any one issue foments, either real or imagined (in this case, very much imagined). Fearmongering about bathrooms and girls’ high school sports is weak when compared to the anti-abortion movement’s murderous rhetoric.

But, as Balmer suggests, it might be the GOP’s next best bet.

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