Right-wing groups are spending tens of millions on anti-trans ads ahead of the U.S. midterm elections, according to a report released by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) last week.
TV, digital, radio and direct mail ads are predominantly targeting Black and Spanish-speaking voters in an attempt to keep these specific Democrat-leaning groups home from the polls.
“This is a voter suppression tactic, pure and simple,” Geoff Wetrosky, national campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign, tells Xtra in an email. “These ads are a cynical, last-minute, behind-the-scenes attempt to fly under the radar and discourage folks from participating in the democratic process.”
According to HRC’s report, both individual politician campaigns and larger anti-LGBTQ2S+ groups are pushing untrue and hateful messages in their ad buys.
America First Legal, a group founded by former Donald Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller, is behind many ads. Politico reports that the group has spent at least $4 million on radio spots across Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit, claiming that the Biden administration “is pushing radical gender experiments on children.”
The foundation’s stated aim is to work with state attorneys on cases suing the federal government for implementing left-of-centre policies.
The group is also running ads accusing the Biden administration of “antiwhite bigotry” in Georgia, according to Vanity Fair. It is unclear how spending millions of dollars on untrue media designed to depress voter turnout is related to bringing litigation challenging Biden administration policies.
Florida senator Marco Rubio, who has a seven-point lead in his Senate reelection race, has also spent over $7 million on anti-trans ads that make false and inflammatory claims. One ad his campaign has spent over $4 million on claims that the “radical left” is “try[ing] to turn boys into girls.”
And the American Principles Project, a right-wing Christian group founded in 2009, which the Southern Law Poverty Center says “echoes the conspiracy theories of the radical right,” has released ads attacking gender-affirming healthcare and claiming LGBTQ2S+ people are “grooming” children.
Wetrosky says that the attack ads that target minority groups do so to try and persuade them not to turn out to vote. This forms part of larger right-wing voter suppression efforts.
“Extremist politicians and the groups that support them are using a ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ approach,” he says. “They’re working to make it harder to register to vote, working to make it harder to vote by mail and working to limit polling places and ballot drop boxes, because they know that these manoeuvres will disproportionately impact people of colour.”
He continues, “Using flagrantly false ads about the transgender community to try and suppress the vote is right in line with these anti-democratic tactics.”
HRC estimates that extremist candidates and groups have poured at least $50 million into the anti-trans blanket campaign, covering at least 25 states. That includes battleground states like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, where tight Senate races could decide which party controls Congress’ upper chamber.
Right-wing politicians have stoked vitriol toward trans people this year, passing a raft of anti-trans bills in state legislatures across the country. At least 18 states now ban trans kids from participating in youth sports of their correct gender.
More extreme bills, like Florida’s recent legislation to ban all gender-affirming healthcare for minors, indicate that right-wing lawmakers have ambitions to strip as many trans rights as possible. Republican politicians campaigning for election this year are using LGBTQ2S+ rights as a major focal point, including Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, who wants to ban schools from being able to discuss LGBTQ2S+ issues, similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Misinformation around trans youth is a popular right-wing wedge issue, as it uses a reasonable fear (children being harmed) as a vehicle to peddle unreasonable bigotry (trans children living as their true gender is harmful). Advocates note that it’s an extension of the same moral panic that spurred anti-gay bigotry in the 1970s, and has resurfaced in similar insults (baseless accusations of pedophilia) being levelled against trans people and their allies now.
Wetrosky says that the best way to combat the blanket ads is for people to have conversations with their networks and make sure they know the truth.
“Talking directly to your friends and family is a great way to combat misinformation,” he says. Wetrosky suggests pointing out some of the right-wing connections behind the ads’ funders, too.
“These people don’t have the well-being of children in mind. They are solely interested in using malicious lies to create more division and hate because it gains them more power.”
The U.S. midterm elections take place on November 8.