Republicans eye culture wars on trans community, education as 2024 election looms

"Most Americans agree that there are higher priorities," one opponent argued.

February 24, 2023, 5:08 AM

Leading Republicans like former President Donald Trump, and at least two possible 2024 White House contenders, are increasingly focused on battles around LGBTQ issues and education -- a dynamic that political operatives say is likely only to intensify in the lead up to next year's election.

"We are in a cultural, cold civil war right now,” Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster, told ABC News.

“I think that Republicans, just as Democrats on their side, are looking for the strongest warrior to lead their cause into '24,” Blizzard said. “And I think that that's part of the reason why you're seeing Republican candidates or presumptive Republican candidates for president start to lay down some policies and some positions to establish their credibility in that battle"

While Republican strategists have preached the idea that GOP voters want a revival of Trump's presidential policies without his bombast and baggage, other operatives say the voters have different preferences, which are set to dominate the party's 2024 primary.

That appetite is seemingly being manifested in new policies and legislative pushes by Trump himself as well as governors weighing White House aspirations and others, all not long after a midterm in which expected Republican gains were sharply curtailed over a perceived excess on social issues and focus on the 2020 election, strategists said.

Exit polling backs up this view: Surveys showed midterm voters cared strongly about abortion access while disapproving of Trump-brand election denialism, as younger people and independents broke for Democrats despite widespread disapproval of President Joe Biden and concern about the economy and high inflation, according to an analysis for ABC News.

Among the GOP grassroots, though, the mood is different, some in the party told ABC News -- which could be crucial in deciding who is nominated in the next general election.

"They want more … You talk to activists at committee meetings and stuff like that, that's their focus," said one former official in Trump’s administration, who asked not to be identified given the sensitivities of their current political work.

The contours of this are already coming into view on several issues, with proposals stretching the bounds of previous battlefields.

On education, Trump has called for school principals to be elected while cutting federal dollars for any school or program that teaches "critical race theory," which historically refers to a higher-education concept not taught in K-12 classes but which is now linked by some conservatives to curriculum related to racial differences and oppression.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, thought to be Trump's biggest rival in the 2024 primary -- though he has pushed back on questions about his future -- has waged a high-profile fight to get the Advanced Placement course on African American studies revised in his state.

And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who hasn't ruled out a 2024 bid, has ordered her state's education department to review materials for "divisive concepts."

On COVID-19, DeSantis has cited his record of rolling back what he called unnecessary restrictions early in the pandemic, while Noem cast herself as the leader of the "freest state" in the country for the lack of some restrictions to begin with, which she said were government overreach.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks at the South Carolina State House, Jan. 28, 2023 in Columbia, SC.
Win Mcnamee/Getty Images, FILE

"When the world lost its mind, Florida was a refuge of sanity, serving strongly as freedom's linchpin," DeSantis said in a statement last month as he backed a permanent ban on COVID-19 mandates.

Perhaps the issue that's gotten the most attention among the prospective primary field is transgender rights.

In recent years, Trump and other Republicans have highlighted instances of transgender athletes competing in college sports, which they say is unfair, though trans athletes and advocates say that is an oversimplification of the underlying health and science – and competing against another gender is its own problem. New policies go significantly further than what Trump discussed as president and as a 2016 and 2020 candidate, when he described himself as friendly to some in the LGBTQ community.

In a sprawling and strict plan released last month, Trump urged punishing doctors who provide gender-affirming care to minors and passing a law banning such procedures for minors in all 50 states. In a video statement then, he called it "left-wing gender insanity."

DeSantis has also pushed for state rules restricting minors' access to gender-affirming care though he, too, has expanded beyond minors, requesting 12 state universities provide data on the number of students and others who received gender-affirming treatment over the last five years.

Noem signed legislation in South Dakota to ban gender-affirming care for minors, arguing at the time that “South Dakota’s kids are our future. With this legislation, we are protecting kids.” And former Vice President Mike Pence's advocacy group Advancing American Freedom is set to rally conservatives against transgender-affirming policies in schools with a public relations blitz. (Pence indicated to ABC News’ David Muir last year that he’s weighing whether to make 2024 presidential bid.)

Trump's plan included a proposed executive order that would direct all federal agencies to "cease all programs that promote the concept of sex and gender transition at any age" -- restrictions that, if enacted, would help prevent transgender people from existing in public life, advocates say.

“Self-interested candidates are going after transgender people to score political points. It’s normal to not understand what it means to be transgender at first, and extremist politicians are exploiting that for their own gain," Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the political arm of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement.

"Last year’s midterms elections are proof that while this may gain votes from the most fringe voters in the primaries, it’s backfires in the general elections. Most Americans agree that there are higher priorities, like the rising cost of living, than attacking transgender people," Heng-Lehtinen said.

Republicans who spoke to ABC News said they are still divided over how far to take the fight over transgender rights. Others, however, said there is indeed a desire among conservatives for even stricter measures.

"I think we're in the majority, people that think that it should be limited to an individual at a certain age. I don't think the parent has a right to make that decision for a child, because that child is not an adult," said Moye Graham, the chair the Clarendon County GOP in South Carolina, an early primary state.

In a nominating contest though, Republicans interviewed nearly all agreed: There's little downside to stretching the boundary of the political discussion on transgender rights and other culture issues.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks after being sworn in to begin his second term during an inauguration ceremony outside the Old Capitol Jan. 3, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Lynne Sladky/AP, FILE

"When it comes to some of the public education stuff, the [critical race theory] stuff, the transgender stuff, especially with kids, I don't think there's a primary electorate risk for going too far whatsoever," said a longtime Trump aide close to his 2024 team, who asked not to be quoted by name.

The general election next year, may be a different story, strategists and local officials acknowledged.

Republicans are still sifting through the aftermath of the 2022 midterms, when the GOP only narrowly took the House and lost a Senate seat despite historic tailwinds based on disapproval of President Biden.

That has even some conservatives warning against focusing too much on social issues -- or going too far on them.

"I think people ... want to have a community that they're comfortable living in and don't want things, particularly in schools, pushed down on their kids that they don't believe in. But the bigger issues end up being the economic ones. What's happening in terms of inflation, where are we going to have growth in the economy so we can continue to prosper?" said Club for Growth President David McIntosh.

"I've seen tendencies of candidates who pick up, maybe, a trend that they think's happening in the base of the Republican Party and then in order to jump out in front of the parade, come up with ideas that are just terrible ideas," McIntosh said.

Not every would-be 2024 candidate is culture warrior. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who said on ABC's "This Week" in February that he's considering a run, has largely endorsed his state's "live and let die" mantra; and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed a ban on gender-affirming care for minors -- which the state legislature overrode.

"The Republican Party that I grew up with believed in a restrained government that did not jump in the middle of every issue. And in this case, it is a very sensitive matter that involves parents, and it involves physicians. And we ought to yield to that decision-making, unless there's a compelling state reason," Hutchinson said in 2021.

Potential Republican contenders like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have also not sought to advance the same kind of transgender-related legislation as DeSantis, Noem and Trump.

Still, operatives said they are anticipating a cycle of escalation as the 2024 primary takes center stage.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you saw people try to one up each other, maybe going a little bit further on some of these issues," said Sam DeMarco, the Allegheny County GOP chair in Pennsylvania, a battleground state. "And I think the American people will judge what they believe is prudent or not."