A week before announcing his campaign for president in May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a slate of bills that altered the lives of transgender people in his state.
Now, with just over five weeks before Republicans begin to weigh in on the presidential nominating fight, DeSantis has wielded those new laws to draw sharp contrasts with his GOP rivals and to appeal to social conservatives who could be key to sparking a strong finish for him in the Iowa caucuses.
The intense effort to push these issues to the forefront was laid bare minutes into Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate when DeSantis, in response to a question about his slipping poll numbers, accused former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley of opposing one of those laws: blocking transgender children from certain medical procedures that he likened to mutilation. Haley denied the charge.
The next morning, DeSantis pivoted again to the topic when asked whether he would send troops to the Middle East to rescue US hostages. He then continued to press his cause on the road for the next 48 hours.
“You have one conservative candidate running in this race and that is me at this point. That’s just the reality,” DeSantis said later Thursday in Iowa. “When we can’t even as Republicans agree that it’s wrong to chop off the private parts of a 14-year-old kid, what is going on in this party?”
Taking on the role of cultural warrior is not new for DeSantis, who rose within his party by seizing and then championing contentious issues the GOP base was eager to raise. It’s not one, however, that has convinced most conservative voters to turn away from former President Donald Trump. In some states, particularly New Hampshire, DeSantis’ hard turn right has endangered his chances of becoming the top alternative to Trump as moderates and Independents increasingly look toward other candidates, especially Haley.
But in Iowa, where the evangelical influence over the Republican caucuses is historically strong, the lane for a socially conservative candidate has become considerably less crowded in the past few months. A handful of candidates who also competed for that support have left the race, including former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
Michael Demastus, a Des Moines pastor, said DeSantis has made significant inroads with those Republicans after spending months in the state meeting with faith leaders behind closed doors and out of view from the media. In Wednesday’s debate, DeSantis demonstrated he had listened when he elevated their concerns about the left’s push for more transgender rights, Demastus said.
“What he said isn’t just the native language of evangelicals, it’s the native language of any parent with common sense,” said Demastus, who was on his way to a private gathering with DeSantis when he spoke to CNN. (Though his wife backs DeSantis, Demastus said he has not yet decided who to support.)
After Wednesday’s debate, one of the moderators, conservative commentator Megyn Kelly, called conservative concerns about transgender children a “huge issue” that has received the “short shrift” in the previous three debates, which she set out to change.
Kelly grilled former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over his opposition to government bans on transgender surgeries, which he said should be up to parents. DeSantis quickly jumped in: “As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids.”
But he quickly moved from Christie to the larger threat in the race, Haley. He claimed she opposed a bill he signed in May that banned gender-affirming surgeries for minors and criticized her for standing in the way of a bill that would have banned transgender men and women from using the bathroom of their choice in South Carolina.
In her retort, Haley pointed to DeSantis’ remarks during a 2018 candidate forum, during which he said that “getting into bathroom wars, I don’t think that’s a good use of our time” and that people should be able to set up bathrooms “how they want.”
While that remark once generated hope for LGBTQ advocates in Florida that DeSantis could usher in a new era of acceptance – or at least a cooling of the culture wars – he ultimately jumped into the “bathroom wars” five years later with the package of bills he signed shortly before entering the presidential race.
“I signed it, you didn’t,” he said. “You killed it. I signed it.”
Though the former president went unmentioned in the exchanges, DeSantis’ political operation has also regularly challenged Trump over transgender issues. On social media, DeSantis’ campaign has repeatedly resurfaced a video of Trump straining to answer whether a man can become a woman. And a top DeSantis aide, Christina Pushaw, has raised Trump’s political friendship with Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian and reality TV personality who came out as transgender in 2015, once even luring Jenner to respond on X.
After the exchange with Jenner, a user on X asked Pushaw, “Is the owner of the account your (sic) replying to a man or a women?”
“Male,” Pushaw responded.
In a statement to CNN, DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo linked the two GOP contenders together, saying, “Both Nikki Haley and Donald Trump’s records and visions for America are better suited for Gavin Newsom’s California than today’s Hawkeye State.”
In his second-term agenda, Trump has promised to withhold federal funding from hospitals that provide gender-affirming treatments for children and would direct his Department of Justice to investigate health care and pharmaceutical companies.
“The left-wing gender insanity being pushed on our children is an act of child abuse, very simple,” the plan says.
Before DeSantis entered the race, attacks on transgender people had escalated on the presidential campaign trail as candidates sought to turn a fight over LGTBQ rights into a flashpoint.
Haley mocked Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman who received conservative backlash after she posted videos promoting Bud Light, as “a guy dressing up like a girl making fun of women” and declared keeping transgender girls and women out of female athletics was “the women’s rights issue of our time.” Trump said he would make gender-affirming surgeries for minors illegal if he returned to the White House.
The intense focus on treatment for transgender children has come even as major medical groups, including the American Association of Pediatrics, have reaffirmed their support for appropriate gender-affirming care, and medical treatments such as surgery and puberty blockers remain incredibly uncommon despite the increased awareness.
Of the 72 million children in the United States, about 300 of them, or 0.0004%, underwent a procedure to remove breasts or genitals in 2021, according to an analysis of insurance claims by Komodo Health Inc., a health care data company. By way of comparison, there are 4.2 million children who experience homelessness in the United States each year, and more than 5% of children in the US don’t have health insurance – two issues that have received far less attention from presidential candidates.
“When we spend our time attacking health care, we are losing sight of serious issues that are affecting our children across the country,” Ash Orr, spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told CNN. “No one should have their right to exist or their access to health care debated especially on a national stage.”