‘Nobody likes a bully’: Why Cameron’s anti-trans messaging hobbled his bid for governor

Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
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At his final rally before Election Day, in a roughly 15-minute speech, Republican candidate for governor Daniel Cameron twice mentioned enforcing laws against transgender Kentuckians.

Repeating a phrase he parroted throughout his campaign, Cameron told a group of a few hundred people in Elizabethtown that night this governor’s race was about “crazy vs. normal.”

“It’s crazy to have a governor . . . who would refuse to protect women’s sports from biological males.”

Less than a minute later, he vowed, if elected, “Let there be no doubt that we will protect women’s sports from biological males, and we will protect our kids from transgender surgeries.”

Near the end of his speech, the 37-year-old shouted over cheers from his supporters, “We will never let the far left entrench itself in the commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Cameron lost on Tuesday to incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear by a margin of five points, unofficial results show.

Some political experts and observers say attacks on Kentucky’s trans community contributed to his loss.

“Nobody likes a bully, and you can’t run an anti-trans campaign without looking like a bully,” said Emma Curtis, a trans-rights advocate and president of the Fayette County Young Democrats who is trans.

“And not a righteous bully. It’s not like Cameron was punching up. He was attacking a group of our most vulnerable kids at a pivotal point in their life after they’ve just had life-saving healthcare stripped of them from the legislature.

“And he presented them as if they are the biggest threat facing Kentucky,” she added.

Cameron was convinced his campaign platform would garner support beyond the loyal Republican base, he told the Herald-Leader in a Sept. 26 email.

“Most people in Kentucky think that boys shouldn’t play girls’ sports, be in girls’ bathrooms, or that children should undergo sex-change surgery before they turn 18. In fact, Andy Beshear’s support of these positions will alienate swing voters,” Cameron added.

Political scientists and observers said an issue equally if not more instrumental in Cameron’s loss than his emphasis on anti-trans policies was Beshear’s characterization of Cameron being too extreme on abortion.

Beshear’s win, experts say, signals not only a disconnect between restrictive abortion laws passed by Kentucky Republicans and the public’s disapproval of those policies, but the in-real-time struggle among GOP candidates to find a replacement issue to rally their party around in the wake of Roe v. Wade.

For the time being, many Republicans — and the national political action committees working to get them elected — are settling on anti-trans policy as a unifying issue.

For Cameron, it wasn’t a winning strategy.

“In a re-election campaign, specifically, the number one thing you have to do, as a challenger, is make the issue the incumbent should be fired,” Republican strategist Tres Watson said Wednesday.

“It seemed like (Cameron’s) campaign was more focused on bringing down Andy Beshear’s very high approval rating rather than make the argument that he didn’t need to be governor anymore.”

Curtis agreed: “Daniel Cameron spent this campaign punching down on vulnerable people. Andy Beshear in this campaign spent his time uplifting the very same people that Daniel Cameron was trying to appeal to by putting trans youth down.”

On the coattails of a legislative session defined by a raft of anti-trans policies passed by his party, Cameron magnified this minority group into a focal point, becoming the first statewide political candidate to run on a platform that relied heavily on fanning culture war issues.

In a post-Election Day interview with the Herald-Leader, Beshear’s campaign manager Eric Hyers called this campaign focus from Cameron a “massive error,” saying it was “gross, disgusting and just very, very craven.”

Moderate Republicans were less convinced it was a winning strategy for swing voters from the get-go, considering the widespread popularity of Beshear, even among his harshest critics.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, on Tuesday called Beshear “the most Republican Democrat governor that’s been around.”

Though culture war issues are being elevated in state and local elections across the country, generally, anti-trans rhetoric in political campaigns isn’t a motivator that moves people to the ballot box, said University of Kansas Professor Alesha Doan, who studies the intersection of public policy and reproductive rights.

“These issues are salient in small circles,” Doan said.

“Does it make great political sound bites for politicians? Certainly. Does it fit into a larger agenda of painting the country, progressives and liberals as cultural militants gone awry who are trying to program and brainwash children and young people in society into believing this progressive agenda? Absolutely.”

“That isn’t to say that the people harmed by anti-trans legislation don’t feel it acutely — they do. It causes great havoc and has incredible repercussions in their lives,” she said. “But in terms of saliency among the general public, it doesn’t motivate them to come out and vote.”

Political messaging vs. public opinion

Cameron’s anti-trans campaign messaging was tamer than the vilifying narrative pushed by national socially conservative political action committees endorsing him.

And while a politician has little control over the content PACs choose to highlight in attack ads, their messaging played off of one another. PACs, too, appeared to be banking on inciting voter turnout by portraying Beshear as a willing agent of the far-left.

The American Principles Project PAC, for instance, spent $2.25 million pushing a wave of more than 8 million texts with a variety of digital ads that the group said reached 1.1 million Kentucky voters.

Each digital ad focused either on Beshear’s 2022 veto of a bill banning trans middle- and high-school girls from playing girls’ sports, or his veto earlier this year of a broad law that restricted public school teachings on gender and sexuality and banned gender-affirming health care for trans adolescents — the standard of care endorsed by major U.S. medical associations.

Gender-affirming surgery for minors is rare in Kentucky, doctors have told the Herald-Leader.

Kentucky has two clinics that offer affirming health care to trans adolescents, such as cross-sex hormones and puberty blockers, which are prescribed only with a parent or guardian’s permission. But even those clinics have relatively small patient rosters.

At the University of Kentucky’s Transform Health Services clinic in September, they had roughly 40 underage trans patients on the books, Dr. Keisa Fallin-Bennett said at the time – far from the “industry” referenced in PAC ads.

One American Principles Project ad accused Beshear of wanting to fuel the “transgender industry” by allowing trans kids to get gender-affirming surgeries. Another ad asked, “If kids can’t consent to sex, how in the world can they consent to a sex change?”

Yet another harkened back to more “normal” times when there were ostensibly fewer LGBTQ people, “when men were men and women were women.”

Arguably the most hyperbolic digital ad from this PAC falsely suggested Kentucky Democrats and Beshear would send the FBI to remove trans kids from their homes if their family members question their gender identity.

Early on Election Day, before results were tallied, American Principles Project President Terry Schilling Tuesday called “gender radicalism” a “political loser,” and he called Beshear an “anti-family leader.”

Many voters disagreed.

Outside Meyzeek Middle School in Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood Tuesday morning, Mark Niehaus, 67, said he voted for a straight Democratic ticket for the first time in his life.

Niehaus, who supported former Gov. Matt Bevin in 2019, said he was tired of the local party tacking toward “whatever the national party line is,” and that includes on trans rights.

“Trans people are such a minuscule part of the population, but Republicans have to have a whipping boy,” he said. “There’s always somebody they have to demonize.”

Outside Falling Springs Recreation Center in Versailles Tuesday afternoon, Katie Holtz, 37, said she voted for Beshear, because she thought Cameron was “too extreme” on abortion and anti-trans laws.

But she isn’t quite sure if she fully supports allowing trans women to play women’s sports.

“As far as the sports, that one’s kind of iffy,” Holtz said. “As far as gender-affirming care, I think that should be available to everybody, with some stipulations as far as age goes.”

This tracks, said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at Kent State University who has been studying American opinion on trans issues since 2015.

“Most Americans are not fundamentally hostile towards transgender people, even if they’re not as enthusiastic about issues like bathrooms and sports,” he said.

Thus, it’s just bad politics to “conclude that transgender rights is in any way a winning message or should be the centerpiece of a campaign.”

Lack of issue for GOP to rally around

Trans youth in Kentucky make up a sliver of the population – an estimated 0.7% of all youth ages 13-17 (roughly 2,000 teens) identify as trans, according to a 2022 study from the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law.

In some ways, this works in the favor of conservative campaigns highlighting inflammatory culture war issues with voters, Doan said, because “it’s easier to target and dehumanize any group you don’t have meaningful contact with.”

“It’s easy to paint derogatory and really simplistic narratives of people who we don’t understand, or who we think we don’t have much in common with.”

University of Louisville political science professor Anne Caldwell said that’s partly why Republicans are campaigning far less on abortion rights than they did before Roe was overturned in June 2022.

Abortion bans directly impact a considerably bigger swath of the population, making loss of that access much more acute.

“Abortion is something that is a tangible issue to more people than trans rights are,” Caldwell said. “It’s more immediate.”

Since federal abortion protections were overturned, voters have had chances to individually weigh in on abortion rights in seven state referendums. And each time, abortion protections won out, either by the rejection of measures to restrict access, or by the embrace of proposals to enshrine protections.

That includes Kentucky, where voters rejected a ballot measure by a five-point margin last November that would’ve revoked courts’ ability to interpret a right to abortion as existing within the state constitution.

On Tuesday, Ohio became the latest state to codify reproductive rights protections in its state constitution, by double-digit margins.

The disconnect is becoming clearer, Doan said, “between where the Republican party is on issues related to reproductive rights and where most people are. Which is why when it’s put to a general ballot, even in red states, it’s not winning. They’re losing on this issue.”

Watson, the Republican strategist, said GOP leaders are searching for an issue that appeals to “the more moderate Reaganite fiscal conservative wing of the party (and) your Christian, social conservative wing.”

“Right now they’re testing out the trans issue as maybe replacing it, but I think clearly it’s not having the desired effect, and the party’s struggling with how to move forward,” he said.

Late Tuesday night, after Cameron was defeated, the Kentucky Fairness Campaign issued a statement of celebration and a warning.

“Let this be a lesson for all Kentucky politicians – you don’t gain anything by attacking Kentucky’s trans kids,” the organization said.

“Tonight is a resounding victory for LGBTQ Kentuckians, and especially transgender kids, who were forced to bear the brunt of attacks not just from the Kentucky General Assembly, but also Daniel Cameron, who sought to score cheap political points with anti-trans attack ads and harmful rhetoric. It didn’t work.”