In the end, Bevin still lost. But while many Republicans saw the defeat as a worrisome forecast, Schilling looked at the race and saw a vindication for his theory of the case. A postmortem on the Kentucky election commissioned by APP estimated the group’s messaging campaign, which had cost a relatively modest six-figure investment “delivered nearly 13,000 new votes for Bevin” and brought his margin of defeat down from 31,000 to just over 5,000. (The group has used the data to raise money for its continuing efforts.)
“We wanted Bevin to win, but more than anything, we wanted to test this out before trying it at a much larger scale. Now, donors understand that although we came up a few votes short in Kentucky, this can still work. This is persuasive,” Schilling said.
To prove that thesis, Schilling is about to test his message on the biggest electoral stage of all—the 2020 presidential race.
Next week, APP will debut two ads in battleground Michigan that accuse former Vice President Joe Biden, who has generally used his platform to promote protections for LGBTQ youth, of endorsing “gender change treatments for minors,” including surgery and hormone therapies for transgender youth. One of the ads, featuring former drag queen Kevin Whitt, warns that children “need time” to develop a stable sense of their gender. “As a young teen, I felt I should be a woman,” Whitt says. “Seventeen years later, I felt I should be a man again. Treatments to change the gender of a minor are very dangerous and irreversible.”
In a campaign that has already become defined by the president’s controversial defense of Confederate monuments and attacks on anti-racism protesters, Schilling is hoping that stoking anxieties of suburban women and independents about gender nonconforming adolescents will persuade President Donald Trump to add one more front to his culture war reelection strategy.
“The Democratic Party has run circles around us without any opposition because the vast majority of Republicans shy away from these issues in favor of business and tax topics,” Schilling said. “What I’m hoping is that once we release these ads and numbers start to move, the Trump campaign will see it’s a powerful issue that the Republican Party can use to its success.”
There’s no denying the Trump campaign could use some help. Trump’s handling of the economy, coronavirus pandemic and ongoing civil unrest has hurt him badly in the polls, and public fear of infection has thwarted plans for his signature rallies, all of which has enabled Biden to rise almost untouched.
But there is an enormous gulf inside Trump’s circle of campaign advisers and closest allies over whether, even at this fraught juncture, injecting transgender issues into the campaign is a potential key to victory or an act of self-destruction.
A cohort of establishment Republicans, social libertarians and new GOP converts oppose the strategy. Among them are Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka. They point to a raft of evidence—from the volatile bathroom debate in North Carolina that lost the GOP the governor’s race in 2016 to a bitter Republican primary in Pennsylvania’s 2018 gubernatorial race—that pushing anti-LGBTQ issues is slowly destroying the Republican Party, one high-profile race at a time. Kushner, the de facto leader of Trump’s 2020 operation, and Ivanka have previously worked to kill anti-LGBTQ measures inside the White House. One of the president’s favorite officials, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell, is a gay conservative who helped persuade Trump to use the power of American diplomacy to end the criminalization of homosexuality abroad.