Conservative groups are taking aim at a Northern Virginia Democrat who is vying to become the state's first openly transgender elected official, launching robo-calls and ads that raise issues of gender identity.
Until now, the statehouse race between Democrat Danica Roem and Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) has focused mostly on traffic congestion and other local issues, even as the historic nature of Roem's candidacy has brought her waves of publicity and donations from across the country.
But this week, the American Principles Project — a conservative think tank in Washington — took initial steps to support Marshall by calling voters in his Prince William County district and asking about positions they attributed to Roem.
"Danica Roem supports policy that requires schools to allow boys to play on girls' sports teams and compete in girls' leagues," said a recorded voice in a telephone poll that reached 500 voters in the 13th District, according to a script provided by the group Wednesday. "Does this make you more or less likely to support Danica?"
Terry Schilling, executive director of American Principles, said his organization hasn't made a final decision on whether it will donate money or run ads to support Marshall, a 13-term lawmaker who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and uses male pronouns to refer to Roem.
But Schilling said his group sees the Nov. 7 House of Delegates election as part of a larger cultural battle to keep children in schools from being taught what it means to be transgender or made to share bathrooms and locker rooms with students whose gender identity differs from their gender assigned at birth. "This is really about fighting against a radical agenda to force the transgender identity on children in our schools," Schilling said.
Roem tweeted about "the anti-trans robo-call," saying it left her more determined than ever to win the election.
Marshall introduced a "bathroom bill" this year that would have kept transgender people from using restrooms in government buildings that are designated for the sex with which they identify. The bill, which the American Principles Project supported, did not pass.
In late September, a group affiliated with former Loudoun County supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R) posted a YouTube ad that heralds Marshall's record fighting abortion and same-sex marriage and accuses Roem of "running a bizarre 'Elect a Transgender' campaign."
The $400 "Take a Stand With Bob Marshall" ad, which had 2,850 views as of Tuesday, also featured a Marshall quote from 2010 that suggested women who have abortions risk complications or birth defects in later pregnancies as a punishment from God.
Marshall has said the remark was taken out of context, explaining that he was trying to make the point that scientific evidence supports religious teachings that life is sacred and should not be tampered with. On Tuesday, he said he was "disappointed" the quote was used in the video, which was taken down at his request.
"I am the General Assembly's strongest advocate for innocent human life, and I know that all life should be cherished," Marshall said in an email. "Falsehoods and distractions are a poor means to shift attention away from my opponent's own personal and political extremism."
He said he had no problem with the robo-calls made by Schilling's group.
Roem aired her own YouTube ad in September that characterized her bid for elected office as a positive message for other transgender people who feel discriminated against. She said the ad was meant to chastise Marshall for refusing to acknowledge her as a trans woman. In an interview shortly after the ad launched, radio talk show host Larry O'Connor accused Roem of using the issue only when she thinks it will benefit her campaign.
"You're having it both ways. You're saying you don't want this to be an issue in the campaign and, yet, you've raised tons of money off of it," O'Connor said.
O'Connor asked Roem whether she would support schools teaching kindergartners about gender-identity issues.
The Democrat initially demurred, saying she had no plans to introduce legislation that would make such teachings a possibility. Questioned further, she said that she would support the idea if it were done in an age-appropriate manner and that a law wouldn't be necessary.
The telephone poll by the American Principles Project referenced that answer but also seemed to go beyond what Roem had said, stating that the Democrat supported teaching young children about "the possibility for them to change their gender."
Schilling said his group stands by the characterization. "You can't teach children about transgenderism without teaching them that they can change their gender," he said.
Roem called the calls and the ads "an absurd and outlandish way for them to distract from" policy issues in the race.
"What I said on the radio, about kids learning about their transgender classmates in a responsible, age-appropriate manner that's not mandated by law . . . can at least help children understand the complexities of the world around them in an inclusive way that doesn't harm anyone," Roem said.