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Republican presidential candidates take on ‘parental rights,’ LGBTQ issues


Republican presidential candidates take on ‘parental rights,’ LGBTQ issues

Dec 01, 2023 | 11:00 am ET
By Robin Opsahl
Republican presidential candidates take on ‘parental rights,’ LGBTQ issues
Activists and members of the transgender community gathered outside the historic LGBT Stonewall Inn on Feb. 13, 2023 in New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Most Republican presidential hopefuls share the same views on so-called “culture war” issues, including prohibiting transgender women from participating in women’s sports, opposing LGBTQ materials in K-12 schools and supporting police forces against protesters – but candidates argue their specific approaches will help them win the nomination and beat President Joe Biden.

In the months ahead of the 2024 Iowa Republican caucuses, presidential candidates have emphasized their experience implementing socially conservative policies in office.

Former President Donald Trump leads in national polls at 61% and in Iowa polls at 47% according to aggregated data from Real Clear Politics. At Iowa allies, Trump spends much of his time speaking about his track record as president on issues like agriculture and trade with China, as well as contrasting himself to other GOP candidates and Biden.

Often, he also speaks about LGBTQ issues, including his support for banning gender-affirming surgeries for minors.

“Who would have thought a politician would have to stand up before you and say, ‘I will not allow child sexual mutilation,’” Trump said in Ottumwa during an October event. “It’s crazy, right? Who would think that I would say this – but now we have to say things like that. I have to say things like, ‘I will not allow men in women’s sports.’”

The audience often laughs as Trump makes jokes about transgender women athletes, describing his plans to create a Women’s NBA team made up of current male NBA players who he would ask to transition.

While Trump leads the field – with a dedicated base of supporters in lock – his positions on cultural issues are no different than most members of the Republican Party. But John Lehman of central Iowa is among Iowans who say Trump has shown that he can get GOP goals accomplished as president – and that he is willing to take the “heat” for talking in a manner that Democrats and critics might find disagreeable or offensive, and talking seriously about issues that others are not willing to take on.

“No one’s exempt,” Lehman said. “If you just listen to the guy long enough, he’s willing to take everyone to task: every gender, every ethnicity and every person — people when they’re on his staff, out of his staff. I just regard that as noise and I focus on the future of America, and he is by far the best candidate in either side of the aisle.”

DeSantis and Ramaswamy are among candidates hoping to gain momentum by calling for a national resistance to “the woke agenda” being supported by Democrats.

But Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, said other Republicans hoping to overcome Trump’s lead are not likely to be able to differentiate themselves from the former president on these subjects.

“I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of differentiation among the Republican candidates at least on these particular issues, but that’s not one that’s necessarily going to motivate them to support one Republican versus another,” Hagle said. “It’s that’s more what’s going to get them interested in supporting one candidate or the other in the general election.”

DeSantis hopes to harness momentum from ‘parental rights’ activism

Public K-12 schools have become a hot-button issue for conservatives in many state governments – including in Iowa.

Republican presidential candidates take on ‘parental rights,’ LGBTQ issues
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Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the move in many states to remote schooling, there has been increased scrutiny and activism over school curriculum and staff allowing children to make decisions without parental consent.

“The pandemic really opened a lot of parents’ eyes to what’s going on in schools, in terms of the curriculum and what’s being taught and so forth, and a lot of parents didn’t like it,” Hagle said. “So they started speaking up, and the school boards didn’t like that particularly, or the teachers. And so that kind of led into some of the things that we’re seeing these days.”

During the 2023 legislative session, Republican state lawmakers and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds passed significant legislation addressing criticisms some conservative parents have of K-12 schools, like the availability of classroom materials focused on LGBTQ issues, critical race theory and discrimination. Reynolds enacted measures banning books depicting sexual acts from school libraries, as well as requiring schools to notify parents if a student asks to use a name or pronoun at school that differs from what they were assigned at birth.

These subjects are an important motivator for Iowa conservatives in state politics – and DeSantis’ campaign hopes to persuade caucusgoers to his side by showing the similarities between Iowa and Florida. DeSantis also signed similar school restrictions into law in Florida this year, as well as having a six-week abortion ban, private school scholarship program and ban on gender-affirming surgeries for transgender youth – all laws Iowa lawmakers also passed in recent sessions.

“People have said that Iowa is the Florida of the North, but I’ll tell you it very well may be that Florida is the Iowa of the Southeast,” DeSantis has told Iowans repeatedly on the campaign trail.

DeSantis has argued that Iowa and Florida showcase a “winning formula” for Republicans in the upcoming election. As the predicted “red wave” failed to coalesce in most of the country, the two traditional swing states both went strongly Republican during the 2022 midterms.

With the surge of conservative activism in public schools, one group has emerged as a major player: Moms for Liberty. The Florida-based political organization played an influential role in promoting DeSantis’ gubernatorial race and policy platform in his home state. Iowa members of the organization were strong advocates for the “parental rights” legislation passed by GOP lawmakers in Iowa.

Republican presidential candidates take on ‘parental rights,’ LGBTQ issues
Gov. Kim Reynolds sat down with Casey DeSantis, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wife, in Johnston on July 6, 2023 as she launched “Mamas for DeSantis” in support of her husband’s 2024 presidential campaign. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

DeSantis’ campaign launched its “Mamas for DeSantis” coalition in Johnston early in the campaign season, led by the Florida governor’s wife Casey DeSantis. Speaking with Reynolds, Casey DeSantis said her husband is the best candidate to “ensure that parents have the rights to be able to make the decisions that they think best for their family.”

“This isn’t OK in this time in society, it’s not OK to take the rights of parents away from them,” she said. “And so that’s why the governor and myself have stood strong.”

Maddie King of Pella said that she supports DeSantis because of his advocacy for “parental rights” issues, a topic she has been involved with in Iowa.

“I think parents are kind of tired of being told how to parent, what they should introduce their kids to at what time,” King said. “And I think people who are engaged with that have been looking at what he’s done in Florida – and how he will do is tied into that.”

Though parental rights plays a large role in state politics, DeSantis has told Iowans he also has a track record of taking on other battles against the “woke mind virus” in Florida. The Republican governor pointed to other efforts from replacing “Marxist” members of the board of trustees at a Florida college to sanctioning Disney after the company released a statement opposed to the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“Part of it is, it’s important for kids, but part of it’s a larger issue of, you know, as Republicans, we can’t just bend the knee to woke corporations that are trying to hurt our country,” DeSantis said during a Creston event. “They should butt out of this stuff. Why would you want to be involved in trying to inject transgenderism into second grade classrooms?”

Christie pushes back at DeSantis’ battle against Disney

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another 2024 presidential candidate, has also called for education policy measures such as notifying parents when a student socially transitions at school. But he has criticized DeSantis’ legal battles against Disney, saying that the governor was punishing the company for expressing different political views.

“That’s what I was taught that liberals thought ‘If you disagree, I can use the government to punish you and change your mind,’” Christie told USA Today in an interview. “Now, all of a sudden, that’s what conservatives or people who call themselves conservatives are doing.”

Christie, who has not campaigned in Iowa during the 2024 caucus season, has largely focused his campaign on opposition to Trump. In a Sunday CNN appearance, he attributed the rise in antisemitism across the U.S. — especially during the conflict between Israel and Hamas — to the former president’s impact on political discourse.

Though Trump has also spoken in opposition to left-leaning protests against Israel in major American cities and on college campuses, Christie said that Trump’s “intolerant language and conduct gives others permission to act the same.”

“When you show intolerance towards everyone, which is what he does, you give permission as a leader for others to have their intolerance come out,” Christie said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, referring to Trump.

Ramaswamy campaigns against ‘wokeness’

Ramaswamy has also campaigned on a platform of opposing “wokeness” in American politics. In Iowa, Ramaswamy’s campaign staff often set out a stand listing the candidate’s “ten commandments,” which include statements like “God is Real,” “Reverse Racism is Racism“ and “The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind.” Ramaswamy has argued that young people’s increasing interest in social justice ideology stems from a lack of patriotism and religious faith – and says that a new American leader can help bring younger generations to the Republican Party.

“The real issue relating to religion in this country though that I should comment on, is, we do have an established religion in this country,” Ramaswamy said at a Newton event. “It is a militant form of secularism that takes the form of woke-ism and transgender-ism and climate-ism. These are really substitutes for the real thing. If you have a hole the size of God in your heart, and God does not fill it, something else will instead, the same can be said for belief in a nation. You don’t pledge allegiance to the flag, you’re going to pledge allegiance to something.”

Haley says moderated approach is necessary for Republican wins

Though candidates like DeSantis and Ramaswamy have claimed a focus on so-called “culture war” topics will help the GOP win general elections, other candidates say the presidential nominee needs to be someone who can appeal to the general population.

For Haley, that means approaching divisive topics with nuance. At the Family Leader Thanksgiving Presidential Forum earlier in November, she shared her experience serving as South Carolina governor during the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015.

After the shooter’s manifesto was released, which included a picture of him draped in the Confederate flag, Haley called a meeting with Republican, Democratic, legislative and community leaders to discuss her request to bring down the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina Capitol – an action that would require two-thirds majority approval from the state House and Senate.

The South Carolina legislature voted to take down the flag in July 2015. There were passionate debates for and against removing the flag, Haley said, and the role of a leader is to make sure both sides are heard while taking action.

“I knew how personal this issue was with the state,” Haley said. “If 50% believed it was heritage and tradition and another 50% thought it was slavery and hate, my job wasn’t to judge either side. My job was to get them to see the best of themselves and go forward. That’s what we have to do in our country, is not judge people, not hate people, not divide people, but it gets them to see the best of themselves and see what we could be.”

Abortion is another subject on which Haley has repeatedly called for Republicans to take a different approach. Many political analysts attribute Democratic wins during the 2022 midterm elections to that year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Ballot measures on abortion across the country have all ended in favor of less restrictions on the medical procedure.

Republican presidential candidates take on ‘parental rights,’ LGBTQ issues
Republican presidential candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy, left, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on Aug. 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The former United Nations ambassador describes herself as “pro-life,” but said Republicans need to be realistic about their ability to enact federal abortion legislation. At the November Republican presidential debate, Haley said it is unlikely Republicans will be able to garner the 60 Senate votes necessary to pass a federal measure like the proposed 15-week abortion ban.

Instead, Republicans should focus on finding language that could realistically pass in U.S. Congress, she said, by supporting measures that ban late-term abortions as well as support maternal health care and adoption services.

“We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore,” she said.

Haley is not the only candidate calling for Republicans to think about general election appeal while picking their presidential nominee. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has also called for less attention on “culture war” issues, saying Republicans need to focus instead on issues like energy and food independence, national security and inflation.

“There’s a number of issues that states can handle, or parents can handle, or the local library board can handle — I mean, it’s literally can be handled there,” Burgum said at the Iowa State Fair. “Any minute the president spends on some issue that is not energy, economy or national security, when we’re in a cold war with China and in an actual proxy war with Russia, any minute not spent on those things, is time that is wasted.”

Foreign policy and national security have played a much greater role in the 2024 nominating cycle than in previous presidential elections because of the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts. Hagle said these are the issues where Republicans see a stark divide — while candidates like Haley are calling for the U.S. to continue providing military aid to its international allies, some Republicans are calling to curb the federal war spending and direct more resources to domestic issues.

Because the conflicts are ongoing, its unclear how these issues will impact the Republican presidential nominee’s bid against Biden — or if fighting will have ceased by November 2024.

“It’s certainly something that could be an issue,” Hagle said. “Normally, foreign policy things aren’t at sort of the top of the pecking order for interest for Republicans — or Democrats for that matter. Usually, it’s the kitchen table kinds of issues: jobs, economy, health care, the issues dealing with kids as part of that. But if, all of a sudden, things are heating up or it’s a bigger issue because of the action that’s occurring in, whether it’s Ukraine or Gaza, that then all of a sudden can become an major issue.”