From Georgia to North Carolina and beyond, LGBT advocates are playing plenty of defense in 2016. But they just won a key battle in a deep-red state -- and they did it thanks to an unlikely ally. Again.
Small businesses and large corporations, industry associations, universities and sports leagues are leading the way in opposing a slew of religious freedom and transgender bills popping up in conservative-leaning states. And their help appears to be making the cause resonate in ways that simply focusing on LGBT rights hasn't.
Take Georgia, for example. It was a given that gay-rights groups would oppose a controversial religious freedom bill when the legislature started considering it this month. But the debate didn't make national headlines until last week, when Hollywood, Disney and the National Football League jumped in to oppose it.
On Monday, both the NFL and gay rights groups celebrated as Gov. Nathan Deal (R) vetoed the bill. "I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, which I and my family have been a part of for generations," he said.
The gay rights community is starting to draw parallels between its business-backed victory in Georgia and its battles elsewhere. Last year, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a revised version of a religious freedom law after national scrutiny and pressure from groups like the NCAA, which is headquartered in the state and threatened not to host events there. Then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a similar bill in 2014 after the state's business community -- along with Apple and American Airlines -- balked.
In North Carolina, major employers from American to Dow Chemical have said they don't agree with the law Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed on Wednesday requiring transgender people to use the public bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate. (The law's supporters note there's nothing stopping businesses from setting their own bathroom policies.) And earlier this month, South Dakota's governor vetoed a bathroom bill under quieter, but no less adamant, opposition from the business community.
There's a clear economic argument for businesses to jump into such a contentious social issue. Indianapolis's nonprofit tourism arm estimated the city lost $60 million in economic impact in the wake of the religious freedom controversy.
But gay rights advocates also argue there's a powerful branding component at play as well. Corporations are acutely aware of their image among the the coveted 18-34-year-old category. They're also aware that these kinds of bills aren't popular with that age group.
A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey found 8 in 10 young Americans (aged 18 to 29) favor non-discrimination laws. The survey found 7 in 10 Americans overall supported protecting LGBT Americans from discrimination in the workplace or housing.
"These companies are ahead of the curve in seeing this as a problem," said Matt McTighe, the executive director of Freedom for All Americans, a bipartisan campaign working to advance non-discrimination laws at the state and federal level. "They don't want to hear, 'Oh, your company is from one of those states? There must be something wrong with your company.'"
The challenge for LGBT advocates is how to harness their newfound ally while avoiding the the political pitfalls that could come from embracing the business community.
After watching businesses take the lead in Indiana, Freedom for All Americans has shifted its approach to let the private sector take more of a leading role. Whereas they previously circulated petitions among the business community to ask for their support, now they are helping businesses set up their own coalitions to advocate for non-discrimination laws. One such coalition launched Monday in the battleground state of North Carolina.
There, Democrats are hoping businesses' opposition to the new bathroom bill plays out to their political advantage. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper plans to make potential economic loss from this law a campaign issue in his effort to unseat McCrory. McCrory's camp says that will be a tough sell since the governor vetoed a religious exemption bill not unlike Georgia's last year.
There is a also a chance, though, that linking arms with the business community could backfire for gay rights activists.
Businesses are undoubtedly a powerful persuader among lawmakers and governors. But it's an open question whether voters are as influenced by the private sector.
"The average voter doesn't seem to care some employer spoke out unless they work for them," McTighe said.
And many businesses' positions on LGBT rights aren't as clear-cut as they would have you think, argues Tim Head with the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which supported Georgia's religious exemption bill. Head points out many of these businesses decrying the bill in Georgia do work or are headquartered in states that have their own versions of religious freedom laws on the books. The NCAA is holding the Final Four in Houston, a city where voters recently overrode its non-discrimination ordinance for transgender people, for example.
And the battle isn't over in Georgia. Head's organization plans to argue Georgia's governor sold out to business allies in his effort to get legislatures to override the veto. "We believe elected officials should make decision based on principle instead of profit," he said.
Georgia is just one state where LGBT advocates are frantically playing whack-a-mole with bathroom and religious freedom bills across the nation. Despite the potential pitfalls, it's safe to say they're grateful to have such a powerful ally on their side.