Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gushed about eliminating what he described as “gender ideology” in schools throughout his state. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley dehumanized trans girls and women, saying they “don’t belong in locker rooms of any of our girls.” And entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — a fringy political newcomer who has floated 9/11 conspiracy theories — effectively erased non-binary people when he insisted that there are only “two genders.”
Hosted by Fox News, the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election season was rowdy and contentious — even without former President Donald Trump — as candidates touched on topics like abortion, border security, taxes, the war in Ukraine, and competition with China. Questions in the second half of the two-hour affair prompted candidates to go after trans rights — and they did so almost exclusively in the context of education. Many candidates even called to do away with the Department of Education.
First, though, they devoted significant air time to debating abortion — and some handled the issue rather carefully given the juxtaposition between the GOP’s anti-abortion stance and public opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans support abortion rights. The spotlight on reproductive freedom has grown in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling last year to overturn Roe v. Wade.
DeSantis — known for far-right positions on social issues — bragged about implementing a six-week abortion ban in Florida, but he also dodged questions about whether he would approve a federal abortion ban. Haley similarly refused to go all-in on national abortion bans by arguing against the political viability of that approach, saying it would not get the necessary support in Congress.
Predictably, former Vice President Mike Pence took an aggressive stance on the issue and attacked his rivals for refusing to commit to stringent abortion restrictions. Pence and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina voiced their support for a 15-week abortion ban.
“It’s not a states-only issue,” Pence said. “It’s a moral issue.”
On LGBTQ issues, however, the candidates were largely in lockstep. At the center of the stage was DeSantis, the poster child for the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law barring LGBTQ visibility in schools. He returned to his oft-repeated line about needing “education in this country, not indoctrination” as he discussed his efforts to ban “gender ideology” and critical race theory in the Sunshine State.
The evening’s moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, fed into the transphobic rhetoric with lines of questioning that misgendered trans girls and women and framed the right to play sports as a women’s issue. They asked Haley about her positions against allowing trans girls to play sports, and Haley initially danced around the topic by speaking broadly about parents, children, and schools.
“As a parent, the one thing you want is for your child to have a better life than you did,” Haley said. “And we can talk about all of these things and there’s a lot of crazy woke things happening in schools, but we’ve got to get these kids reading. If a child can’t read by third grade, they’re four times less likely to graduate high school. So we need to make sure we bring in reading remediation all over this country. We need transparency in the classroom because parents should never have to wonder what’s being said or taught to their children in the classroom.”
Haley continued to ramble about education before saying that she would “fight for girls all day long because strong girls become strong women.” She then proceeded to deliberately misgender trans girls.
“Strong women become strong leaders and biological boys don’t belong in the locker rooms of any of our girls,” Haley said.
Scott agreed with Haley in his closing argument.
“If God made you a man, you play sports against men,” Scott said.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who vetoed a trans sports ban in 2021 but went on to sign a pair of related bills into law earlier this year, was asked about his previous comments that “there still has not been a single recorded incident of a transgender girl playing or entering the process to even ask to play on a North Dakota girls’ team.” MacCallum asked him if he was trying to say that the issue was overblown.
“No,” Burgum responded. “I’m saying in North Dakota, we made a priority of protecting women’s sports and we’ve done that in our state…. But I do think when we start talking about education — and we think that we’re going to have a federal government one size fits all — we’re just completely losing track of the fact that education differs by state. Some school districts are doing a fantastic job, some less so.”
Burgum also threw some cold water on DeSantis’ argument that schools are “indoctrinating” students.
“But the idea that every school district state and every teacher is somehow indoctrinating people is just false,” Burgum said. “Teachers in this country, the vast majority of them, care about those kids.”
Another candidate on hand for the debate was Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who enjoyed far less speaking time than many of his rivals. Hutchinson once vetoed an anti-trans health bill in his state, but also approved a bill last year barring trans athletes from participating in sports in accordance with their gender identity.
Notably, all of the candidates on stage — as well as Trump — have stood in opposition to LGBTQ rights throughout an era when the Republican Party has mounted an aggressive campaign to curtail transgender rights in education, the military, healthcare, sports, and other areas of life. Questions have even swirled around the long-term viability of same-sex marriage under the shadow of a deeply conservative Supreme Court, prompting Democrats to pass the Respect for Marriage Act late last year.
On other issues, such as the military and the economy, there were notable differences among candidates. While Christie, Haley, and Pence voiced support for continuing to support Ukraine against Russian invaders, Ramaswamy criticized that approach as unnecessary and said the funding should instead be used to protect America’s southern border. DeSantis, who has already faced criticism from within his own party for wavering on his stance regarding support for Ukraine, offered a nuanced argument, saying that he would tolerate ongoing funding as long as European NATO members “pull their weight.”
Trump’s absence at the debate was glaring, and his name did come up on some occasions, including when DeSantis and Christie commended Pence for certifying the 2020 election when his then-boss told him to do otherwise. Ramaswamy, meanwhile, called Trump the “best president of the 21st century.”