Ohio’s rejection of Issue 1 proves that protecting abortion rights is a political winner. Here: An anti-trans ad titled "Your Promise" from Protect Women Ohio (screenshot via YouTube)

Ohio’s rejection of Issue 1 proves that protecting abortion rights is a political winner. It’s also proof that attacking transgender rights is a political loser. 

On its face, Issue 1 was a mere procedural matter, a ballot initiative changing Ohio’s constitution and raising the threshold for future amendments from a simple majority to 60 percent voter approval. But Republicans rushed an August special election to thwart the upcoming November referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment establishing a “fundamental right to reproductive freedom.”  

One Person One Vote, the liberal coalition group leading the opposition campaign, was eager to connect the dots. When Ohio’s Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican and Issue 1 supporter, was caught on video at a GOP event saying of the amendment, “Yes, it’s about abortion,” One Person One Vote cut an ad repeating the clip three times in 30 seconds. 

Conservatives were not nearly as eager. Not only had LaRose repeatedly claimed Issue 1 was not about abortion, but the top producer of Yes on 1 ads, Protect Women Ohio, also avoided the connection. Instead, the ads from Protect Women Ohio primarily sold the proposal to prevent the enshrinement of transgender rights. 

“You promised you’d keep the bad guys away,” a worried female narrator intones over a video of a child being tucked into bed in its ad “Your Promise.” As a drag queen reads to children, the narrator warns of “out-of-state special interests that put trans ideology in classrooms and encourage sex changes for kids.” By voting Yes, “You can keep this madness out of Ohio classrooms and protect your rights as a parent.” 

The anti-trans ad was one of the spots released in July by Protect Women Ohio. Total television and radio spending from One Person One Vote outdid the Yes coalition by $12.4 million to $9.7 million, but its edge was much narrower—$5.9 million to $5.3 million—in the campaign’s final week. 

The Protect Women Ohio narrators only mention abortion in one of its ads released in the home stretch. In “Caught,” a narrator says, “The out-of-state groups fighting Issue 1 keep saying it’s just about abortion, but it’s not.” Viewers are then told these groups “want to allow minors to get sex changes without parental consent.”  

Enough data exists to convince a Republican political consultant that attacking transgender rights, particularly regarding trans children, will win votes. A Pew Research Center poll last year found 58 percent of American adults support requiring “that transgender athletes compete on teams that match the sex they were assigned at birth, not the gender they identify with” and a plurality of 46 percent would “make it illegal for health care professionals to provide someone younger than 18 with medical care for a gender transition.” A USA Today/Suffolk University poll of Ohio voters taken last month found that 70 percent were opposed to trans girls playing on “female sports teams in K-12 schools and universities if they’re taking hormones.” (The latter poll also presciently projected that 57 percent of voters would oppose Issue 1.) 

But these views appear to lack sufficient breadth and depth to tip elections. Only 41 percent in the Pew poll “strongly” support keeping trans girls off girls’ teams, and 31 percent “strongly” support banning gender-affirming care for minors. Simultaneously, 64 percent support protecting “transgender individuals from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public spaces such as restaurants and stores.” 

The mixed data helps explain the electoral impotence of transgender panic, especially in contrast to the proven saliency of abortion rights.  

In 2022, reproductive freedom advocates won six statewide referendums, either enshrining abortion rights or rejecting restrictive measures, and lost none. The victories included the purple and red states of Michigan, Kansas, and Kentucky. Ohio will join that list in November if the Issue 1 vote is any indication. 

Abortion rights also propelled Democrats in several tough swing state campaigns. In Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, victorious Democratic Senate candidates emphasized abortion in their ads. Exit polls showed voters ranked abortion the most or second most important issue, with the Democratic nominee romping among such voters. Similarly, exit poll data suggests abortion helped Democrats gut out gubernatorial wins in Arizona and Wisconsin, as does pre-election polling in Kansas (where exit polls were not administered).  

Some of those Republicans made losing bets on transgender attacks. For the December 2022 U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia, Republican Herschel Walker campaigned alongside competitive swimmer Riley Gaines, who lobbies against transgender women competing in women’s sports. In Nevada, Adam Laxalt released an ad accusing Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of voting to let “biological boys compete against girls.” Kansas Republicans unsuccessfully tried to rile up voters over Democratic Governor Laura Kelly’s vetoes of bills banning transgender participation in women’s sports. 

Also, Michigan Republicans put transgender issues front and center in the 2022 election. The result? Full Democratic control of the governorship and statehouse for the first time since 1984

The Human Rights Campaign tabulated that Republican candidates and right-wing groups spent over $50 million on anti-transgender ads in the 2022 cycle. Not all of that was spent in competitive races; about $7 million was spent by Florida Senator Marco Rubio in his re-election bid, which he won handily. But Human Rights Campaign flagged a “$4 million radio buy from Stephen Miller’s America First Legal on Black and Spanish-language radio in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.” Despite the under-the-radar attempt to sow discord among the party’s base, including direct mail targeting people of color, Democrats won at least one statewide race in six of these eight states. 

After Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 upset gubernatorial victory in Virginia and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s landslide re-election in 2022, Republicans might have thought stoking outrage over supportive policies for transgender students would be a great way to woo suburban parents who drifted from the GOP thanks to Donald Trump. But as I wrote about Youngkin’s campaign, the grinning fleece-wearing dad relied on dog whistles, eschewing blunt ideological appeals, to navigate transgender controversies and stitch together a winning moderate-to-conservative coalition. And while Ron DeSantis won after scoffing at criticism of his law that banned discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, it’s become more evident over the past few months that what plays in Florida doesn’t necessarily play in the rest of the country.  

If the failure of transphobic messaging doesn’t convince Republicans to drop their demagoguery, they should consider this: In 2016, Pew found that 30 percent of Americans knew someone who is transgender. In 2022, it was 44 percent. As with gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, personal familiarity with transgender adults—and trans kids—will become even more common. Increased acceptance and understanding will follow as it has before.  

What isn’t working today is really not going to work tomorrow.  

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.