On Election Day earlier this week, some Wisconsin voters found disturbing messages on their phones: Their children would be in danger from “trans madness” if they didn’t vote for Daniel Kelly, the conservative contender for an open seat on the state Supreme Court. The messages included a video, which told them, “Don’t leave your children in the hands of Janet Protasiewicz,” the liberal candidate in the race, and that “your family depends on it.”
Protasiewicz won, with the results called by the AP less than an hour after polls had closed. Protasiewicz’s commitment to restoring the right to abortion—the main focus of her campaign ads—drew her significant support, along with protecting democracy, given the role the court plays in elections. As one Madison voter said on Election Day, what she saw at stake was “my health care rights, my right to choose, my right to decide my fate and my future.” But alongside shoring up reproductive rights, Protasiewicz’s win shows how those anti-trans attack ads have continued to be a failure for Republicans.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign was called “the country’s most expensive judicial race,” with more than $45 million spent as of March 30. Those anti-trans ads came from a conservative group called American Principles Project, or APP; its PAC invested at least $796,000 to boost Kelly, as of campaign finance disclosures up to March 17, with the group pouring money into digital ads and peer-to-peer messaging. APP bills itself as “the only national pro-family organization engaging directly in campaigns and elections.” It is one of several conservative groups behind Promise to America’s Children, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion coalition that has been active in pushing anti-trans laws across the United States.
The videos from APP “contain transphobia and disinformation, including broad claims that Protasiewicz and school officials are working to make children transgender,” reported Phoebe Petrovic at Wisconsin Watch, a local investigative nonprofit news outlet, who reviewed the ads, including ones not published online. The accusations are disconnected from reality. The video ad referenced a lawsuit filed by two anti-trans groups, who alleged that a school “transitioned” a child without parental consent. Not only did this not happen, it appears Protasiewicz never made a public comment on the matter either, for or against. She does, however, have the support of groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign, who defend LGBTQ rights.
The barrage of such attack ads is in part due to the preposterous amount of money drawn to this race, particularly the funds coming from out-of-state donors who recognized the state Supreme Court’s pivotal role in the 2020 election, after Trump’s challenge to the results in Wisconsin failed by one vote. Kelly received major donations from people who had previously funded efforts to overturn the 2020 election (during which Kelly himself advised on the Trump campaign’s “fake elector” scheme). Members of leadership in some of the same groups that have joined with APP in advancing anti-trans legislation also supported those “stop the steal” efforts, including Michael Farris, head of Alliance Defending Freedom. A Protasiewicz victory has now created a liberal majority on the court, which would imperil such attempts to overturn an election in 2024.
Every anti-Protasiewicz video and message Wisconsin Watch reviewed made an appeal to “parental rights,” a conservative rhetorical framework once fringe but now central to Republican politics, which is most often used in service of trying to discredit public education. Those attacks included this one shared by a Wisconsin state legislator’s chief of staff: “Woke activists backing Janet Protasiewicz are destroying parents [sic] rights and forcing trans ideology into our schools. She will do nothing to stop the sexualization of our children.”
Republicans’ use of misinformation about trans people—especially about trans kids—for political attack ads has increasingly become a fixture of elections across the country. In 2022, conservative groups including American Principles Project, America First Legal (founded by former Trump official Stephen Miller), and others spent at least $50 million in at least 25 states on these ads, according to the Human Rights Campaign. These attacks may not motivate people to vote against their targets. They may even contribute to increasing turnout against the anti-trans candidates. As a get-out-the-vote strategy, they are risky.
An APP ad campaign remarkably similar to the one in Wisconsin targeted Pennsylvania voters in 2020, aimed at people who normally support Democrats. “Hi, I’m a Democratic volunteer with APP PAC,” one text message to a Pennsylvania voter began, claiming, “Joe Biden has endorsed giving 8 and 10 year olds sex change treatments … I can’t support him.” Biden, of course, won Pennsylvania, but the margins were close.
If these ads are a losing proposition—if the goal is to elect Republicans—then they must be succeeding at something else. And as the Pennsylvania campaign demonstrated, the ads might not be meant for Republicans. “If you’re talking about suburban parents who are concerned about what’s going on in their public schools, this is an area where I think that Republicans have a big opportunity,” one Republican pollster said in early March. “The tone of how this is handled is extremely important because the vast majority of people, regardless of their views on trans issues, don’t want to treat people, especially children, cruelly.”
These ads, then, might not be meant at all for the Republicans’ friends. More likely, these ads are for their enemies.
Consider that there could be a newly energized constituency inflamed by the fiction that doctors and schools are secretly forcing their children to transition. They may not be voting differently yet, but some minds are changing. An April 2021 PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll asking Americans if they “support laws that criminalize the act of providing gender-transition-related medical care to minors” found that only 28 percent of people supported that view, with 65 percent opposed. Now, two years later, the same poll found that 43 percent support criminalizing gender-affirming care and 54 percent are opposed. Some recent polls indicate nearly two-thirds of voters believe the amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation is “excessive,” but still, 45 percent said they believed that trans people were a threat to their children. The political climate fueling these attacks may feel like “political theater” to a majority, yet it is also reshaping views. Keep in mind, though, that’s still a small shift, and one that has yet to pay off with electoral gains, even as groups like APP toss millions of dollars into ad campaigns attacking trans people.
Instead of being savvy politicking, these campaign tactics are all about demonizing conservatives’ opponents, results be damned. These ads are meant for trans people, to hurt trans people. The bet those in the Republican Party pushing these ads are making is a dicey one, given their track record. But they are telling us this is a gamble worth taking because no matter what happens, trans people will get these messages. And so will everyone around them: You are going to be smeared along with trans people if you support them. Or even if you just look like you do.
Rationalizing attacks such as these ads, a Republican pollster told ABC that “we are in a cultural cold civil war right now.” While it may be unclear who these ads are ultimately intended for, the sides at least are clearly drawn.