Donald Trump on Thursday freshly exposed the fissures dividing the Republican Party by responding to the transgender bathroom wars with a shrug — setting off a fierce response from Ted Cruz who accused the Republican front-runner of being no better than the “politically correct leftist elites.”
The latest front in the culture wars is now a bathroom stall. The raging debate over whether transgender people should be forced to use bathrooms of their gender at birth is acutely playing out within the GOP, and it’s now become a central topic on the presidential campaign trail.
Social conservatives see Big Business — once a close ally — becoming a pawn of the left, joining forces to convince Republican governors that anti-LGBT bills will kill their economy. Some more moderate Republicans, on the other hand, once again see the party picking divisive fights that will hurt them at the ballot box.
For Trump, the consummate businessman, it’s the chance to highlight the identity crisis of his adopted party.
“I will tell you. North Carolina did something that was very strong. And they’re paying a big price. There’s a lot of problems,” Trump observed on NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday, saying that he agreed with remarks from a commentator he did not name who said North Carolina should leave its laws as they are.
Alluding to businesses that have left the state or canceled plans to expand after North Carolina passed a law in March banning transgender people from using the facilities of their choice, Trump called it reason enough to “leave it the way it is.”
“There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go. They use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate,” Trump said. “There has been so little trouble. And the problem with what happened in North Carolina is the strife and the economic — I mean, the economic punishment that they’re taking.”
Sensing a chance to expose Trump as a phony Republican, Cruz pounced. He talked about Trump’s comment on Glenn Beck’s radio show. He talked about it at his morning rally. And then, for good measure, he issued a statement.
“Donald Trump is no different from politically correct leftist elites. Today, he joined them in calling for grown men to be allowed to use little girls’ public restrooms. As the dad of young daughters, I dread what this will mean for our daughters — and for our sisters and our wives. It is a reckless policy that will endanger our loved ones,” Cruz said in the statement.
While the debate over transgender use bathrooms is just now breaking out on the campaign trail in a big way, it’s been reverberating across the nation ever since North Carolina passed its controversial law last month and has been causing endless hand-wringing within the Republican Party.
Some Republicans seemed almost embarrassed by the debate on Thursday.
“As transgender bathroom issue emerges in GOP nomination race, am I only 1 wondering how this stuff would b enforced … Bathroom Stall Police?”, tweeted Florida-based GOP strategist Ana Navarro, echoing other top Republicans in recent weeks who have dismissed the issue as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, discriminatory.
But the main deterrence for Republican governors seems to be financial.
Before North Carolina, there was South Dakota. Last month, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed his own state Legislature’s bill to mandate that kids in public schools use the bathroom and locker room corresponding to their biological gender after hearing from local business groups and banks.
“I don’t think it’s the place of Big Business to tell a state how it should run particularly its social legislation,” said state Rep. Fred Deutsch, who sponsored the bill, in an interview with POLITICO. “I would encourage CEOs to run for the Legislature if they want to participate in social engineering, or send their lobbyists to testify against bills while they’re in committee. But don’t threaten us with leaving the state, especially when we’re extending tax incentives for them to be in our state.”
The United States Chamber of Commerce declined to comment for this story, saying it doesn’t weigh in on “social issues.”
But the Human Rights Campaign is eager to put the economic elements of the debate as much in the spotlight as possible. The top LGBT advocacy group’s list of executives from major companies who want to see the North Carolina law repealed has grown to 180 as of Thursday. Chief among them is Paypal, which earlier said it was spiking plans to open a new operations center in Charlotte that would create 400 jobs.
“What you’re hearing is, a lot of businesses are speaking out, and they’re saying it’s bad for business, and that message is being heard by a lot of different people,” said HRC’s Brandon Lorenz.
In many ways, the current GOP turmoil is a repeat of last summer, when Republican governors across the nation faced a backlash from corporations and other critics incensed by legislative efforts that would have allowed businesses to deny service on religious grounds to gay or transgender people.
It’s a controversy that’s still playing out and that overlaps with the bathroom debate. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, for example, earlier this month cited complaints from the business community in his decision to veto a so-called “religious freedom” bill.
In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said she doesn’t think a transgender bathroom bill is necessary, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s concerned that Tennessee could lose federal funding if it enacts such a law — a factor also cited by Daugaard in South Dakota.
The judicial branch also looks poised to strike down some of the bathroom laws; a federal court’s ruling on Tuesday in favor of a male transgender student seeking to use the men’s room at his public school already imperils the North Carolina law. That’s prompting comparisons to gay marriage, where courts kept pace with rapidly changing cultural mores to legalize same-sex unions nationwide within a decade, leaving social conservatives sputtering and confused about how to proceed.
“This is not the terrain the Republican Party wants to fight this election on,” conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
But de-emphasizing these types of issues would be tantamount to surrender, said Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. To do so, he said would be “just to concede it, to admit that we’re not going to fight that fight anymore.”
Head added, “We think that there has been an oversized corporate influence in all levels of government, and while we greatly value job creation and economic stimulation, the citizens of states really should be the driving force for elected officials, not special interests.”
Head said the bathroom question isn’t even a moral question, but rather one of “safety.” Executives who oppose the gender mandates for bathrooms, he said, are “drawing lines based on political correctness, even to the potential detriment to safety and also to the consternation of most people in most places, faith-based or otherwise.”
Deutsch, a chiropractor who is serving his first term in the South Dakota ouse, said he was “surprised” by the backlash against his proposal. He acknowledged that the left perceives the bill as discriminatory, which he didn’t intend.
“I have four daughters, and I don’t want them taking showers with people with male anatomy,” Deutsch said. He’s not running for reelection in 2017, saying his office manager quit and he needs to tend to his business, but he’s planning to run again under a new governor — at least two of the three likely Republican successors to Daugaard have expressed support for the measure.
“I believe bills can be drafted that don’t have the left burst a blood vessel and protect the modesty of our students,” Deutsch said.
Trump’s stance is clearly testing his uneasy alliances with the religious right. The most prominent social conservative on his staff struggled to rebut Cruz’s argument about letting men into bathrooms with little girls on Thursday.
“Look, I don’t disagree. I have a daughter,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a daughter of Mike Huckabee now serving as a senior adviser to Trump, even as she tried to wave off the issue as a distraction. But asked by CNN’s John Berman if Trump needs to correct his statement, Sanders couldn’t back up her boss.
“I think it’s certainly something he needs to address over the coming days,” she said, “but personally I think that this issue in North Carolina is a very difficult issue.”
Nick Gass and Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.
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