ARLINGTON, Va. — From the 12th floor of a glass office tower in the Washington suburbs, a campaign to sway the governor’s race in Kentucky on Tuesday is being waged with an alarmist claim that has little to do with the race itself: If Democrats have their way, soon boys will be able to compete against girls in school sports.
This scenario, presented in a pair of ads that are appearing on computer screens and smartphones across Kentucky, is the work of a little-known group funded by anonymous donors called the American Principles Project, which in recent years has focused on fighting more familiar clashes in the culture wars over same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
The group is limiting its work to Kentucky for now, but strategists say it has bigger ambitions. It is effectively running a pilot program for the 2020 election that will help it determine how it could use the debate over transgender rights to rally conservative voters in support of President Trump.
The results could inform what type of campaigns social conservatives run in the future — and answer whether the delicate and deeply personal questions around gender identity are the next major wedge issue in American politics or, as recent experience suggests, something that most voters and politicians would rather not see politicized.
Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, said conservative groups that focus on social issues other than abortion have been shying away from politics — and losing ground in recent years. “What we’re doing is trying to show Republicans how to win on these key issues,” he said.
Through online ads and text messages sent using phone numbers with local area codes, the group is trying to reach some 400,000 Kentuckians, many of whom identity as social conservatives but are not seen as reliable voters for the Republican candidate, Gov. Matt Bevin.
In one ad, called “Wrestler,” two high-school-age girls are shown facing off. “All any athlete wants is a fair shot in competition,” a female announcer says. The camera focuses in on the referee as he is about to declare a winner. The announcer asks: “But what if the rules change?” A teenage boy appears in the frame, and the referee announces that he is in fact the winner. The ad closes by urging a vote against the Democratic nominee for governor, Andy Beshear, declaring, “Beshear calls this equality. But is it fair?”
A text message the group recently sent to likely Kentucky voters said, “Andy Beshear wants boys to compete against girls in girls’ sports. You can’t make this stuff up!” and included a link to the ad.
The attack takes significant liberties with the facts, making it appear as if nondiscrimination laws that include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, which Mr. Beshear supports, would open the door for boys to join girls’ sports leagues just because they want a competitive advantage, not because they are transitioning genders.
Kentucky was a logical place for the group to use as its test market. The election on Tuesday is one of the few statewide elections taking place before 2020. It leans to the right. And Mr. Bevin, the Republican incumbent governor, has had difficulty shoring up his conservative base. The group says it is spending six figures on the campaign. Under law, it is not required to disclose its donors.
The campaign is an acknowledgment of a disappointing reality for social conservatives. The messages they have relied on to halt progress on transgender rights — mostly dire-sounding warnings about predatory men being allowed into girls’ locker rooms and women’s restrooms — have not done all they had hoped.
And despite efforts by Republican politicians across the country to deny transgender individuals legal protections, conservatives have been unable to make transgender people an effective focal point in their push to preserve traditional notions of gender, sexual orientation and marriage.
JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said she believed the new ads revealed a sense of desperation among social conservative activists.
“This is where they had to land because none of the rest of it worked,” Ms. Winterhof said. “At what point do they get the memo? The ground has shifted underneath them across the country.”
Since 2013, Republican legislators in dozens of states — from Alaska to Texas to Tennessee — have introduced bills that would enact a wide assortment of limitations on transgender rights. This includes legislation to restrict what bathrooms people can use based on their sex at birth, prevent public funds from being used for any gender reassignment surgery, and pre-empt counties and municipalities from enacting transgender protections of their own.
Nearly all have failed or stalled. If anything, the tide has even turned among Republicans. The former governor of South Dakota, Dennis Daugaard, vetoed a 2016 bill that would have created a law stopping transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. And when lawmakers tried again the next year, he threatened another veto. In Texas last year, Gov. Greg Abbott backed away from supporting a “bathroom bill,” as the proposals are known, even though he had pushed for one the previous year.
The biggest battle to date was in North Carolina, which passed and then repealed a bill that required people to use the bathroom in public facilities that matched the gender on their birth certificate. The backlash against the measure, which included a decision by the N.C.A.A. not to host basketball games in the state, was a factor in the 2016 defeat of former Gov. Pat McCrory, the Republican who had signed the law earlier that year.
According to a poll commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign after the election, 57 percent of voters said the bill was the top reason they had voted against Mr. McCrory. Public polling conducted after the measure passed found that 55 percent of voters wanted it repealed.
And the country as a whole has been growing more tolerant on trans issues. A survey released in June by the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than six in 10 Americans said they were more supportive of transgender rights than they had been five years ago. Though the report also added a caveat: “Conservative Republicans (40%) stand out as the only ideological group with less than half reporting increased support for transgender rights.”
Lately, a series of high-profile incidents involving transgender children has emboldened social conservatives, including a bitter custody dispute between two parents in Texas who disagree over how to treat their 7-year-old son’s gender identity issues. The father has become a cause célèbre in conservative media and drawn support from Republican politicians like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas because he has said he does not believe the boy identifies as a girl, and does not want him to receive medical treatment to transition, if that becomes necessary in the future.
Admittedly, social conservatives have found themselves struggling with how to articulate their case.
“Look at the bathroom issue,” Mr. Schilling said. “It is the weakest ground we can fight on — on this slate of issues. And conservatives have been fighting on that almost solely over the last several years.”
In its research, the American Principles Project found that people mostly shrugged when asked whether there was such danger in allowing transgender women to use their preferred bathrooms that new laws ought to be passed.
“The world hasn’t fallen apart” since these kinds of laws have failed to pass, said Frank Cannon, the group’s president.
In its polling, it found that messages about bathrooms barely moved voters toward Mr. Bevin. But when shown the wrestler ad and others with a similar message, voters were more likely to swing toward Mr. Bevin by a margin of about four to seven points. The swing was most notable among voters over 65.
Mr. Cannon said that emphasizing children in sports made the case stronger because it focused on “the idea that you are taking something away from people. And that’s where they don’t like it.”
The group points to real-world examples of transgender athletes winning women’s competitions. In Texas, for example, a transgender boy has won the state girls’ wrestling championship two years in a row. Though the boy said he would have preferred to compete against other boys, the governing body that sets the rules for competition in Texas said that gender at birth was the decisive criteria.
“The issues of self-definition are really the most contentious and difficult issues in the country,” Mr. Cannon said.
But if Mr. Bevin buys into that school of thinking, his campaign isn’t reflecting it. And he has not expressed much interest in using transgender issues as a political wedge. Asked in 2016 if Kentucky needed a “bathroom bill” like the one in North Carolina, he responded, “Is it an issue? Is there anyone you know in Kentucky who has trouble going to the bathroom?”