Republicans in West Virginia run to the right on transgender issues

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Transgender issues have emerged as an unexpected focal point in West Virginia’s gubernatorial race, as Republicans in the crowded primary seek to stand out as more conservative than their competitors in the solidly red state. 

In the weeks ahead of Tuesday’s primary, former state Rep. Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), businessman Chris Miller and a PAC supporting West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey have released ads capitalizing on misinformation and Republican concerns surrounding gender-affirming health care and transgender athletes.

A March 28 ad supporting Miller accuses Morrissey of profiting from “the trans agenda” as a former health care lobbyist in Washington. “His pronouns?” a narrator asks. “Money-grubbing liberal.” Another pro-Miller spot — paid for by West Virginia Forward, the super PAC chaired by Miller’s father, Matt F. Miller — claims Morrissey once lobbied for a drug company that “helps turn boys into girls.” 

A senior strategist for Morrisey’s campaign shrugged off the pro-Miller ads. “Attacks came. There was a lot of stuff that was based on falsehoods and just abject lies, so the campaign responded in kind, but that’s not what the focus has been on,” said Jai Chabria. 

An ad from Black Bear PAC, a pro-Morrisey group that’s seen big contributions from the conservative Club for Growth Action, accuses Miller of having “protected they/them, not us” while sitting on the board of Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Another knocks Capito for working to “protect woke counselors” and argues “our next governor has to keep the radical transgender agenda out of West Virginia.” 

Miller’s campaign manager, Evan Lee, said in a statement that the auto dealer plans to “stand up to the radical trans agenda” and pitched Miller as a “businessman like President Trump.” 

Capito’s campaign has also put out ads playing into concerns about transgender athletes and has touted his efforts to ban puberty blockers for trans children. 

The number of attacks focused on transgender issues has perplexed some strategists.

“I think the voters in West Virginia are bewildered by the focus on transgender issues,” said Mountain State-based Republican strategist Greg Thomas. “I think it’s just something that sort of spiraled out of control.” 

Capito, Miller, Morrisey and West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner are the top four candidates jostling to replace outgoing Gov. Jim Justice (R), who is looking to make a jump to the Senate to succeed retiring Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). 

Conrad Lucas, a former chair of the West Virginia Republican Party, said it’s “surprised most people here” that transgender issues became such a prominent primary theme. 

“Jobs, the economy, is always number one in everything, but certainly it’s not a differentiator. … I guess this is the differentiator,” he said. 

An Emerson College Polling/The Hill survey released Tuesday found the top issue for Republican primary voters in West Virginia is the economy, followed by education, coal/energy, threats to democracy and immigration. Transgender rights did not break the top five. 

Asked to rate their concern about the cost of living, border security and transgender issues, roughly 8 in 10 Republican West Virginians in the poll said they are “very concerned” about prices and the border, and 54 percent said the same about transgender issues. 

But 20 percent said they are “not at all concerned” about transgender issues, compared to three percent who said they aren’t worried about the border. 

“It’s amazing the way they’ve made that the focus,” Charleston-based political strategist Tom Susman said of the candidates’ efforts to frame each other as “weak” on policies restricting transgender health care and athletics participation. “They’ve been really running to the far right.” 

Susman pointed to that polling, arguing that though the results show Republican concern, they don’t indicate Mountain State voters want to see transgender issues become the focus of the race. 

“It wasn’t really an issue in West Virginia” until campaigns started spending big and “talking about who’s the least transgender of each of the candidates,” Susman said. “You would think there are hordes of transgender [people] trying to cross the Ohio River into West Virginia. It’s absurd.” 

Thomas underscored that West Virginia, one of the most conservative states in the country, has already banned gender-affirming health care for minors and passed legislation preventing transgender student-athletes from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity, though the latter is tied up in a court battle that Morrissey has twice taken to the Supreme Court. In March, Justice signed a law banning nonbinary gender designations on birth certificates. 

“We’ve done all this stuff,” Thomas said. “Why are you spending a million dollars on ads to get to essentially what could be handled with a handful of Facebook groups across the state?”  

West Virginia lawmakers this year filed more than two dozen bills targeting LGBTQ people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), though only one of them, the birth certificate bill, was able to pass both chambers of the state’s GOP-dominated Legislature. 

“This session was the worst legislative session that I have ever had to work,” said Ash Orr, a transgender and reproductive rights organizer in West Virginia. “But I try to remind myself and others to look at how far we’ve come.” 

The winner of the May 14 GOP gubernatorial primary is expected to sail to the governor’s mansion against the only Democrat contender, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, in the fall. Former President Trump, who is wildly popular in the state, is expected to easily win the presidential race.  

But the state has only shifted solidly into conservatives’ column in recent years. Democrats held a trifecta over the state Legislature and governor’s mansion for nearly two decades before power changed hands in the mid-2010s. 

Orr said he feels like the tides are beginning to turn once again, despite the outsized role that transgender rights have played this year on the campaign trail. 

“I do believe that these politicians are using these extremist talking points because they know that that’s how they can deflect,” he said. “However, we’re starting to see throughout West Virginia and other states that this is starting to lose steam. Even Republican voters who are not supportive of the LGBTQ+ community are getting fed up with our policymakers using the same talking points over and over again and wasting our time and sessions on these issues.” 

Only 29 of the more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills that state legislators introduced this year have become law, according to ACLU data, and nearly half — 244 and counting — were defeated before the end of the legislative session. 

Morrisey is leading the Republican primary field with 28 percent, according to the latest Emerson poll, though his support fell 5 points between May and March. Capito’s backing has grown 11 points, putting him just behind Morrisey at 25 percent. That 3-point separation is within the poll’s margin of error. 

Support for Miller and Warner has ticked up slightly to 19 and 12 percent, respectively, and another 16 percent of primary voters are still undecided. 

“You have essentially four Republican brands here, running, so it was always expected to be highly competitive. And you have three very familiar, historic names in West Virginia who are running for the spot, and you also have a very popular attorney general,” said Lucas. 

Capito is the son of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and the grandson of the late Gov. Arch Moore, while Miller is the son of Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.) and the grandson of the late Rep. Samuel Devine (R-Ohio). Warner’s brother, Kris Warner, is a former state GOP chair now vying to replace his sibling as secretary of state. 

“So, what you’re seeing in the gubernatorial race … is basically the field shifting as far to the right as possible to court the MAGA, culture wars kind of thing. And so they’re in a way kind of out-competing themselves in terms of who can be more right-wing and more focused on those kinds of cultural issues,” said John Kilwein, the chair of the department of political science at West Virginia University. 

Early voting in the race also indicates a low turnout election on Tuesday despite the competitive primary, according to local outlets. That “tends to mean the most partisan and most conservative” show up to cast their ballots, said Lucas, the former state GOP chair.  

“It’s certainly running to the right with a knife. They all are,” Lucas said of the gubernatorial primary. “Each are displaying their conservative bona fides, so a lot of it will boil down to who West Virginians trust to be the actual conservative, and we’ll see who that is on Tuesday.” 

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