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Michigan Republicans escalate LGBTQ attacks. Will voters embrace them?

Meshawn Maddock and her husband
Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, called U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, “a weak little girl.” The post drew backlash from at least two Republican lawmakers condemning the insult.. (Bridge file photo)
  • Michigan GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock called Pete Buttigieg “a weak little girl,” drawing backlash from some in her party
  • Maddock’s tweet is the latest in a slew of personal insults from Republicans over sex and gender identity
  • Experts and strategists say the messaging may boost ardent supporters but won’t appeal to general election voters

LANSING — Amid a growingly intense culture war, remarks by top Michigan Republicans around sex and gender identity are getting increasingly personal.

In a Sunday tweet, Michigan Republican Party co-chair Meshawn Maddock called U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — who is gay — a “weak little girl.”

Last month, Matt DePerno, the Republican nominee for state attorney general in November, called Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel — who is lesbian — the “Groomer General.” 

And state Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, accused her Senate colleague Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, of supporting the grooming and sexualizing of kids in an April fundraising email without backing down, justifying or apologizing for the allegation.

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The name-calling strategy — which has drawn backlash even within the GOP — could further divide and punish the party in an election year, according to a political science expert, some Republican lawmakers, LGBTQ advocacy groups and Democratic and GOP strategists.

John Truscott, co-founder of bipartisan consulting firm Truscott Rossman and former spokesperson for Republican Gov. John Engler, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday that Maddock’s latest post was “a huge distraction from the real issues.”

“She’s hurting the party and (its) candidates,” Truscott said. “Someone at the party should disable her Twitter account — for the sake of all Republican candidates.”

Adrian Hemond, a Democratic consultant and CEO of the bipartisan consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, said the remarks signal a “desperate” attempt to raise money among the conservative base. The GOP nominees for governor, attorney general and secretary of state — Tudor Dixon, DePerno and Kristina Karamo — are all being outraised by the Democratic incumbents they are challenging, campaign reports show.

“This stuff sells to base Republican voters and to basically no one else,” Hemond said.

The focus among conservatives on cultural topics — such as LGBTQ representation in schools and sexual content in books — coincides with a national wave of conservative parents arguing that parents’ voices are being ignored by schools. They have also condemned instruction and reading materials that address LGBTQ or racial themes.   

“There is a long history of cultural conservatism being mobilized to respond to the latest examples of liberalism gone too far, in their view,” said Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University. “It has been flexible enough to be applied to new issues even as cultural liberalism gains (ground) overall.”

Advocates for LGBTQ issues say the rhetoric can have real-world consequences for the most vulnerable students. 

LGBTQ youths are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts and two to seven times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, according to youth.gov, a federal government-run website on youth programs.

“There is a national strategy to spread false narratives about child grooming … under the guise of keeping kids safe,” said Amritha Venkataraman, spokesperson for the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign in Michigan. “Trying to minimize the LGBTQ experience or make it so LGBTQ+ stories and content can’t be shared in classrooms would only exacerbate (their mental health problems).”

‘An era of name calling’

Maddock’s Sunday tweet drew backlash from two Michigan Republican lawmakers. State Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, who is running for re-election this year, said Monday he was appalled.

“When I saw this tweet I was disgusted. I mean we are in an era of name calling and disrespect,” he wrote on Facebook. “It needs to stop. Disagreeing is one thing but insults and slurs…enough.”

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, who will leave the state Legislature at the end of the year due to term limits, said Monday on Facebook the insults from Maddock “have no space in respectful political discourse.”

“I’m not sure I even recognize the Republican party of today,” he wrote. “Denigrating slurs and highly personal insults have no space in respectful political discourse. We can disagree on policy without engaging in this type of behavior. We are better than this.”

John Sellek, a consultant, said Maddock’s attack won’t help Republicans in the long run.

“Attacking Secretary Buttigieg in that way is not only wrong and hurtful, but it is damaging politically to winning independent votes Republicans need in a statewide election because interferes with efforts by the top of the ticket to rightfully return the public discussion to inflation, learning loss and crime,” said Sellek, who was an aide to former Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican.

Maddock did not return an inquiry for comment Tuesday. Gus Portela, spokesperson for the Michigan Republican Party, also declined to comment on Maddock’s tweet and other similar rhetoric from GOP candidates. 

Others took a hard pass on the topic. 

Fred Wszolek, a Republican consultant who works with pro-Dixon super PAC Michigan Strong, was among them. 

Responding in a text, Wszolek wrote: “Not my circus. Not my monkey. :)” .

Hemond, the Democratic strategist, said such remarks will not do Dixon any favors, as the Republican challenger needs to broaden her base to compete against the better-financed Whitmer. 

“It makes normal people tune out of politics more,” Hemond said of Maddock’s tweet. “The nastier politics gets, the more the whiff of the threat of violence surrounds politics, the less the normal people want to be involved with that.” 

Opponents as ‘groomers’

The “weak little girl” tweet is the latest in a series of personalized, sex or gender-based attacks by Michigan conservatives against Democrats, often related to Democratic support of school or library materials that are inclusive of LGBTQ characters or themes. Often, the attacks conflate support for LGBTQ inclusion with pedophilia. 

DePerno, who is running for state attorney general, has repeatedly associated Nessel with the practice of “grooming” — that is, befriending a child for the purposes of sexually abusing or otherwise exploiting the child. In an August statement requesting a debate with Nessel, DePerno said Nessel was engaged in “groomer queen theatrics,” potentially referring to her June comment, where she jokingly called for “a drag queen for every school.”

The DePerno campaign did not return a Bridge inquiry for comment.

Theis, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, claimed in an April fundraising email that children are “under assault in our schools” because of “gender-bending indoctrination”, “exposure to inappropriate sexual content” and “race-based education” that pitted them against each other.

Some conservative groups feature similar talking points in ads airing in Michigan and other states. 

In an ad that will be running in Michigan this week, the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Virginia, featured graphics describing sexual acts from the novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a book about the author’s experience of being nonbinary. As Bridge has reported, the book sparked an uproar among residents in Jamestown Township in Ottawa County, who voted in August to defund the local library after officials there refused to remove that and other such books.  

The ad is part of a $10-million effort to “hold Democrats accountable for grooming our kids,” the think tank said in a Monday tweet.

Democrats say the rhetoric is part of a hateful strategy to target LGBTQ kids and Black people. During an April MSNBC interview, McMorrow deemed Theis’ attacks “disgusting and vile.” 

Betsy Coffia, a Grand Traverse County commissioner and Democratic state House candidate in November, urged Maddock to resign this week over her comment against Buttigieg.

“I’m proud to have Pete, Chasten, and their family return to Chasten’s hometown. You, on the other hand, should resign because your ugly homophobia has no home in Michigan,” Coffia said in a Monday statement. “Michiganders want leaders who respect all and celebrate the diversity that makes us stronger, not those who perpetuate bigotry that endangers people’s lives. Be better.”

Does it benefit Republicans in November?

Fierce protests over the history of racism and slavery in the U.S. and the inclusion of LGBTQ themes in schools and libraries underscore conservative pushback to “cultural liberalism,” said Grossmann of MSU. He noted that similar debates took place when same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana were legalized. 

The emphasis on the most graphic descriptions of sex acts in books could help Republicans solidify their base, Grossmann said, by attempting to portray them as personifying the opposition party. 

But personal attacks may backfire in a year where Republicans should have an upper hand since the party out of power in Washington and in Michigan typically makes significant gains in midterm elections. Midterms, he said, “should be easily a referendum on the incumbent party’s performance.” 

“There is an opening to talk about social liberalism gone too far,” Grossmann said. “But so far, they haven’t been very effective in mobilizing those messages because they seem to just be replicating the rhetoric (of) their most ardent supporters, which is generally not a good general election strategy.”

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