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Republicans running for governor of West Virginia focus on anti-transgender stances


The Republicans running for governor of West Virginia have talked a bit about issues like coal and education, but they have focused a lot more on one particular culture war issue and who is more pro-Trump. The primary's Tuesday, and the winner will be the favorite in that red state's November election. Randy Yohe of West Virginia Public Broadcasting has this report.


CHRIS MILLER: Fairy tales aren't facts. A boy is not a girl.

RANDY YOHE, BYLINE: The 30-second TV and radio clips bombard the Mountain State airwaves.


PATRICK MORRISEY: I'm fighting now to make sure that girls are never forced to play sports with guys. It's not fair, and it's not right.

YOHE: Those were ads for Chris Miller and Patrick Morrisey. The appeal to voters - who is more antitransgender? Three out of the four Republican candidates for governor have taken a culture war issue to a new West Virginia mudslinging level. Then there was a political action committee that ran an ad for one candidate calling trans children, quote, "monsters." The rhetoric worries some West Virginians, like Billy Wolfe with the West Virginia ACLU.

BILLY WOLFE: The campaign's built on demonizing people and villainizing people to score cheap political points. These messages are damaging. Studies show that this rhetoric is extremely harmful. It can lead to suicidal ideation and worse.

YOHE: The choices feature mostly members of the state's GOP establishment. There's three-term attorney General Patrick Morrisey, known for mounting legal challenges to Biden administration policies. He's trading blows with former state delegate Moore Capito, who is the son of U.S. Senator Shelley More Capito. There's also car dealership magnate Chris Miller, whose mother is Republican Congresswoman Carol Miller, and three-term Secretary of State Mac Warner, who said he stayed out of the attack ad fray.

MAC WARNER: Getting excited doesn't solve the issues.

YOHE: On the major issues, it can be hard to distinguish between the candidates. All four candidates are strongly pro-coal, saying, like Capito, that it's key, even as the country moves toward renewable energy.

MOORE CAPITO: Fossil fuels are going to lead this country in the grid stabilization that we are going to require over probably my children's lifetime.

YOHE: When it comes to addressing the state's low rankings in education, the candidates offer a variety of school reforms, but all are predicated on a continuing Republican state trend - shifting money from public schools to private. As for the economy, it's running fairly well here. And that's another reason the campaigns have focused on something like whether a small number of transgender students can compete in sports, says Marybeth Beller, associate professor of political science at West Virginia's Marshall University.

MARYBETH BELLER: Candidates don't have a lot, frankly, of policy alternatives that they want to talk about. It's easier to play the culture wars game and to gin up fear.

YOHE: The candidates do talk on policy alternatives and forums and interviews. But for campaign ads, it's conservative, broad brush strokes and culture-wars rhetoric. Checking in with about 15 lunch-hour voters recently in the capital city of Charleston, in the shadow of the Capitol dome, many are turning off, literally - like Linda Workman from South Charleston.

LINDA WORKMAN: My husband automatically clicks every ad off as soon as it comes on, and I can't stand them anyway. They're all the same. I don't believe anything anyone says.

YOHE: That gives some hope to backers of the one Democrat in that party's primary, also on Tuesday, Steve Williams, a three-term mayor of Huntington, West Virginia's second-largest city. He's an underdog going in and fully reserving his campaign push for the general election.

For NPR News, I'm Randy Yohe in Charleston.

SHAPIRO: And if you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

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Randy Yohe
[Copyright 2024 West Virginia Public Broadcasting]