In this edition: The GOP's transgender politics, lessons from CPAC and a sit-down with a Republican running for Congress against Trump.

We don't have the Kraken anymore, but we'll always have Paris. This is The Trailer.

For most of his 90-minute CPAC speech, former president Donald Trump played the hits. Democrats favor “open borders.” President Biden doesn’t “know what he was talking about.” The 2020 election was stolen, in ways that neither his own Justice Department or judges he’d put on the bench were able to see.

But halfway through the speech, Trump said something new. “Joe Biden and the Democrats are even pushing policies that would destroy women’s sports,” he warned. “Young girls and women are in sets that they are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males.”

The former president did not say “transgender,” a word he uttered just once during his four years in office. His audience got the message. In Congress and the states, conservatives are talking more and more about transgender rights — specifically, the treatment of children and student athletes whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. 

“They're just looking for something to make people afraid and claw back the advances that we've made in equality,” said Kate Oakley, the state legislative director of the Human Rights Campaign, the national LGBT rights group. “It’s definitely escalating, the rhetoric and… the number of bills being filed.”

Trump, who rarely talked about transgender rights as a candidate, ignored the issue in 2020 rhetorically. But his appointees were fully engaged. His Department of Education threatened to withhold money to some Connecticut schools over a decision to let transgender athletes compete, while his Department of Health and Human Services rewrote gender nondiscrimination language to exclude trans people.

Biden, a relatively early supporter of transgender rights, pledged to undo all of that. That didn’t emerge as an issue last year, but it wasn’t for lack of trying by social conservatives. The PAC of the American Principles Project, founded in 2009 with the battle over same-sex marriage still underway, spent millions of dollars on swing-state ads against “transgender radicalism.” Its most widely seen spot portrayed a young boy smugly running past female athletes on a track.

“All female athletes want is a fair shot at competition,” a narrator explained. “What if that shot was taken away by a competitor who claims to be a girl, but was born a boy?”

In an interview when the ad campaign launched, APP Executive Director Terry Schilling said that liberals were underrating the backlash that could come if voters understood what the Equality Act and other Democratic anti-discrimination bills really did. “Once they start figuring out what ‘equality’ means in the Equality Act, they oppose it,” he told The Trailer.

The election didn’t validate that theory, with APP’s targeted states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — voting narrowly for Biden. In Georgia, where Sen. Kelly Loeffler sponsored legislation to block “biological males” from girls' sports, Republicans lost two runoffs, and their Senate majority. Four years after North Carolina's Republican governor was defeated, politically weakened by the fight over an anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” the issue hadn’t moved the electorate away from Democrats.

“Republican politicians seem unwilling or unable to learn the lesson that anti-trans policies are unpopular,” said state Sen. Sarah McBride, elected as Delaware's first trans legislator last year.

Even still, social conservatives picked up their pace. There were 79 pieces of legislation in states to restrict transgender rights last year, many focused on student athletes. In 2021 so far, there have been 69 bills, many sailing quickly through state legislatures where the GOP grew its majorities. The scenario from the TV ads, of girls losing races or scholarships to trans athletes, had not come to pass. The Connecticut case highlighted by the Trump administration, in which two transgender women took home state track titles, has not been repeated in red states. That has not made a difference.

“To say it's not a problem in Tennessee may be true,” Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts told the Tennessean, after helping pass a bill to require students to compete only on teams that match the gender they were assigned at birth. “But it will be a problem in Tennessee probably sooner than we think.” 

In confirmation hearings for Biden's Cabinet, nominees have taken a number of questions about transgender rights, with a focus on minors. When now-Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona faced the Senate, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky pressed him on the transgender sports policy, sketching out the same nightmare scenario as the American Principles Project ads.

“You don’t have a problem, then, with boys running in the girls track meet, swimming meets, you name it?” Paul said. “A lot of us think that’s bizarre.”

Paul got more attention when challenging HHS undersecretary nominee Rachel Levine, who could be the first transgender federal official confirmed by the Senate. The senator, a practicing ophthalmologist, incorrectly suggested that hormone blockers made irreversible changes, and repeatedly used the term “genital mutilation” in reference to gender reassignment surgery.

“You’re willing to let a minor take things that prevent their puberty and you think they get that back?” Paul said. “You give a woman testosterone enough that she grows a beard, you think she’s going to go back looking like a woman when you stop the testosterone?”

Levine avoided the question, offering to meet with Paul in his office to discuss transgender medicine. But the exchange got noticed, as did Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia's decision to misgender the child of Rep. Marie Newman of Illinois. When Newman placed the pink, white and blue transgender flag outside her office, Greene put up a poster with the words “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. 'Trust The Science!' ” 

The passage of the Equality Act, a dead letter when Republicans ran the Senate, has been the new hook for Republicans at the federal level. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, one of two Republicans who backed the bill in 2019 and opposed it last week, explained to CNN that she had new concerns: That changing legal language could mean “eliminating single-sex sports and social groups that are critical for personal development and growth.”

That argument has won out in conservative state legislatures, and was advanced at CPAC. Schilling joined one of the plaintiffs in the Connecticut case from the stage, and shortly before that, he went on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's live podcast to lay out the political strategy.  

Out of office but still the leader of his party, Trump has now talked more about the issue than ever. In Orlando, he riffed on records being broken by transgender athletes, and imagined what it must be like to be a coach or female athlete disappointed by being bested by someone who was “biologically male.” This could be one of his movement's causes in the coming years, and he was there for it.

“Is that controversial?” Trump asked the crowd. “Somebody said, well, that’s going to be very controversial. I said, that’s okay. You haven’t heard anything yet.”

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CPAC debrief

Former president Donald Trump dominated the largest annual gathering of conservatives last week, from the moment the Orlando Hyatt Regency's ballrooms opened to the moment he took its stage. The Conservative Political Action Conference was a celebration of Trump's presidency, a reaffirmation of his nationalist agenda, and an agenda-setting salon on how to making voting more difficult. Yes, Joe Biden had taken over the presidency. But don't say that Donald Trump lost it.

“Actually, as you know, they just lost the White House,” Trump said, falsely and bitterly, of the Democrats. “Who knows, I might even decide to beat them for a third time.”

Republicans who don't attend CPAC, or who resent that they have to attend, argue that the conference is more about who has paid the American Conservative Union for sponsorship than it is about ideas. The cynicism is easy to understand. Groups come to claim leadership on the cause of the day, from deficit panic 10 years ago to blockchain voting now; oddballs with plenty of money can buy relevance, which is why a right-wing Japanese futurist kept appearing on the ballroom's big screen, swinging a samurai sword and flogging his translation of a book about the Trump White House.

Winner: Anti-shutdown governors. The home field advantage helped, but Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida's strength in the straw poll wasn't surprising. He'd led on two conservative priorities: Keeping most of his state's economic and public institutions open, and scrapping with the media. In conservative outlets, DeSantis's slugfests with reporters over the state's infection rate have gotten the play that Chris Christie's town hall spats with teachers used to. 

“We can sit around and have academic debates about conservative policy,” DeSantis said at the start of the conference. “But the question is: When the klieg lights get hot, when the left comes after you, will you stay strong, or will you fold?” The formulation was hard to miss: It's more important to humble the media than it is to argue about policy.

DeSantis was the runaway non-Trump winner of the weekend's straw poll, garnering 21 percent support when attendees were asked how they'd vote in a primary that included the former president, and 43 percent in a primary if Trump didn't run. Just as telling was the runner-up: Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, whose resistance to shutdowns became famous after she invited Trump to Mt. Rushmore and kept the Sturgis biker rally running. She hit 4 percent in the poll with Trump included, and 11 percent without him.

“South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close,” Noem said in her CPAC speech. “We never instituted a shelter-in-place order. We never mandated that people wear masks. We never even defined what an essential business is.” Republicans identified with opposed lockdowns won a majority of the straw poll vote, with or without Trump.

Loser: Deficit hawks. It's not news that Republican opposition to deficit spending dissolved during the Trump presidency. The lack of interest in the topic at CPAC was still striking. The $1.9 trillion covid-19 relief bill, which Republicans successfully whipped their entire House conference to oppose, passed the House midway through CPAC. It took hours for anyone onstage to mention it, and when they did, the main point of attack was the bill's $141 million to fund repairs on the Bay Area's rapid transit system, including the first extension of the BART subway into San Jose.

“She put a tunnel in Silicon Valley, that has nothing to do with covid, into the bill,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “We wanted to take that money and give it to the kids, and get 'em back in school.”

The “Pelosi tunnel” has been the cornerstone of Republican messaging against the covid package, and Republicans are still trying to use House procedures to strip the money — which is not actually going to Pelosi's district — and replace it with a fund for students' mental health. That was about it for discussion of one of the largest stimulus packages in American history. On Sunday, when two House Republicans and Trump's last OMB director sat for a discussion of “why you should care about the national debt,” the conservative streaming service Right Side Broadcasting had already cut away for interviews with Trump supporters outside the hotel.

Ad watch

DCCC, “Won't Deliver.” The Democrats' campaign arm responded to the weekend's relief bill vote with a battery of digital ads against swing-seat Republicans — inexpensive, easy to do quickly and aimed at local media. In this ad, directed at Rep. Beth Van Duyne of Texas, a viewer is told that the freshman from a Biden-won district “voted against stimulus checks for your family” and “voted against funding to safely reopen schools.”

Poll watch

Do you approve of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's job performance? (EPIC-MRA, 600 Michigan voters)

Approve: 52% (-4)
Disapprove: 47% (+3)

Before the memes, before the kidnapping attempt, before the pandemic, Gretchen Whitmer was headed toward political trouble. Her handling of the first year of the coronavirus outbreak changed that; despite rigid opposition from Republicans, up to and including the restriction of her emergency powers, Whitmer's approval rating soared and stayed positive. It's still in the black right now, but Whitmer tied with a well-known Republican when tested as a 2022 challenger, and voter opinion of the economy soured over the winter. Although vaccinations and reopenings are taking the political pressure off, the Republican plan to beat Whitmer hasn't changed: Their control of the legislature allows them to block relief funding and investigate her handling of the pandemic, a steady source of negative headlines.

Q&A

Michael Wood is 34, a Marine Corps reservist and something rare: A Republican running against Trump. On Monday, Wood jumped into the race for Texas's 6th Congressional District, where the death of Rep. Ron Wright has created the only special election for a swing seat — albeit one drawn to elect a Republican — in America.

“I want to build a center-right coalition that can win elections across the country, build majorities in the House and the Senate and the White House, and then push forward the conservative reforms that we need,” Wood said in an interview after launching the campaign. Here's a lightly edited transcript of the rest of that conversation.

The Trailer: You weren't at CPAC, but what did you hear from the president's speech that you disagreed with? What about the rest of the agenda that came out of the conference?

Michael Wood: I didn't watch it. I can't sit through 90 minutes of a Trump speech. But I did catch the highlights. And what I heard was a recipe for a minority party, a party that's going to continue to lose, just as we've lost the White House, just like we lost the House of Representatives. For all the good Trump might have done over the past five years, it's time for us to move on.

TT: I should get more specific. I've talked to Republicans who have problems with Trump and opposed his agenda, and to Republicans who've said they'll never support him again but they want his agenda to last. Start with immigration, where do you depart from Trump on that, where do you disagree?

MW: I do think that we need the wall. What we need is a full-court press, not just the wall, but all sorts of resources sent down there. I support E-Verify. I think employers should have to verify the immigration status of everybody they hire, which will do a lot of good for the wages and the livelihood of some of our most vulnerable and unskilled working people. I support free trade.

I do think that there's a giant national security asterisk that should be placed next to China. We have had this democratic theory, since the end of the Cold War, that if we brought China into the international community over time, they would liberalize and democratize. That hasn't worked out. But I think the way Trump prosecuted the trade war wasn't very good. I think it bankrupted our farmers and I think it put a whole lot of industries in a very tough position. And I do think the tone matters. If you think that politics is about building coalitions and winning elections, he's shown that he doesn't have the skills or the wherewithal to lead the Republican Party.

TT: I'm assuming you'd have voted to impeach Trump in January. Can you expand on why?

MW: I think impeachment is a political question, whether or not the president lived up to his oath of office. We have very high bars that protect political speech in this country, and I'm glad that we do. So what Trump said on Jan. 6, and the months leading up to it, even if it didn't meet the legal definition of incitement, I think the fact that he was president of the United States makes it pretty obvious that he incited the riots. As Liz Cheney said, there's never been a greater betrayal of an oath by a president of the United States. It wasn't just exactly the words that came out of his mouth on Jan. 6. You have to include the context of over two months of conspiracy theories and an attempt to undermine what we hold most dear in this country, which is a peaceful transfer of power.

TT: Let's say you're a town hall next week and somebody says, ‘Hey, that election was rigged and Donald Trump won.’ What would your answer be?

MW: There's a certain amount of shenanigans that have to happen in any national election. With a country as big, as diverse and as chaotic as ours, you can always find examples of fraud or things that maybe are a little bit shady. But there was no widespread fraud on the scale needed to overturn an election. And the Trump team had about two months to make their case, and it was somewhere between 60 and 90 judges, a whole lot of them Republican appointed, who gave them every opportunity to do in court what they were saying on Twitter. And they just couldn't do it.

TT: Did you support Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton's lawsuit? Most of the GOP conference signed a brief in favor of it. 

MW: Ken Paxton's lawsuit was an anti-constitutional abomination and it would have brought chaos upon our constitutional system. It was a stunt. And Texas should be embarrassed that he tried that. 

TT: I'm not going to assume you've read the entirely of H.R. 1, the Democrats' election reform bill, but there's been a lot of reporting about what's in it. Would you support it? Do you think the idea of a federal elections bill is worth pursuing at all?

MW: Elections are handled at the state and local level. There are exceptions to that, such as counties and states that have a long history of Jim Crow-like oppression. We addressed that in the 1960s. I'm very hesitant to sign on to anything that would extend federal power over elections again, which are state and local responsibility. From what I understand, the bill is still sort of evolving, but it sort of seems like it's a Democratic Party grab bag, a whole lot of things that they want. So I probably wouldn't get on board with that. 

To be clear, I support a strong voting system. I think that there's a whole lot of good that can be done at the state and the local level. And actually, I think it would be really good somehow for Jeb Bush to lead an effort to sort of reform the voting practices around the country, whether that's formal or informal, just because he did so much good after 2000 in Florida to make Florida's electoral system pretty stable and pretty solid.

TT: Sketch out this race for me. A lot Republican voters are going to ask you what you think about Trump, and then vote for somebody else. Democrats are going to have their candidates, and vote for them. How do you actually win this race or get into the runoff?

MW: I'm going to speak plainly and I'm going to speak honestly to Republicans, independents and Democrats, and I'm going to tell them what I told you: I think that Donald Trump opened up a whole lot of issues and a whole lot of things that the Republican Party wasn't talking about 10 years ago, and that's good, but can't lead us forward. This campaign is built around a bet that if somebody stands up, other people will respond to that. 

You know, I'm a small-business man. I've got four small kids. I talk to people every day and I feel like there's a hunger out there for somebody from the heartland to stand up and say these truths. I think that a Republican pointing out how Trump has let us down will get some people listening. I think a Republican pointing out that we can't be a party of conspiracy theories will get some attention, and get some traction that it wouldn't if it was coming out of a Democrat.

Voting wars

Perseus used the head of Medusa to kill the Kraken. The Supreme Court slew it with eight words: “The petitions for writs of mandamus are denied.”

That was the end for two remaining lawsuits brought by Sidney Powell, the freelance election attorney who quickly went from delivering a legal strategy briefing at the Republican National Committee to being privately mocked by Trump. Her final cases, targeting the results in Arizona and Wisconsin, were shoved aside by the court on Monday, which Powell credited to the usual combination of dark forces.

“The Supreme Court's failure to date to address the massive election fraud and multiple constitutional violations that wrought a coup of the presidency of the greatest country in world history completes the implosion of each of our three branches of government into the rubble of a sinkhole of corruption,” Powell wrote in a breathless email to Forbes.

Liberals didn't give the court much credit. On Tuesday, the nine justices heard arguments in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee and Arizona Republican Party v. Democratic National Committee, which concern Arizona laws that restrict “ballot harvesting” and require ballots to be thrown out if cast in the wrong precinct. (In many states, ballots like that are counted, with only the races specific to that precinct thrown out; a vote for president would count, while a vote for a local party official would not.)

The Democrats' worry isn't necessarily about those laws. It's that a conservative court might, as it did eight years ago with the Shelby County v. Holder decision, use a voting rights case to gut more provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Under Section 2 of the VRA, if a plaintiff can prove that an election law was passed with intention to discriminate, the law has to go. The court could rule for the GOP narrowly; it could, in its ruling, say that the “intent test” is no longer needed.

As usual, the court's liberals used the hearing to probe whether plaintiffs could justify massive voting restrictions that would disproportionately affect some voters.

“The state says, we're going to have Election Day voting only, and it's going to be from 9 to 5,” said Justice Elena Kagan at one point. “And there's plenty of evidence on the record that voters of one race are 10 times more likely to work a job that wouldn't allow them to vote in that time period. Is that system equally open?”

“Seems like it, because that would pretty much be the status quo in 1982,” said Mike Carvin, an attorney for the RNC.

“How about 9 to 3?” Kagan asked. Carvin's response: In that scenario, the time a state reserved for voting would have to be reasonable, but there was no clear test.

Countdown

… 18 days until special House election primaries in Louisiana
… 60 days until the special election in Texas's 6th Congressional District
… 98 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 112 days until New York Citys primary