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Are Republicans on the right track? They are pushing culture-war issues

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Across the country, Republican lawmakers are pursuing legislative crackdowns on social issues, from abortion and transgender rights to drag performances. And the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll indicates that Republicans risk being out of step with voters. NPR political correspondent Kelsey Snell has been looking into this and joins me now. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

PFEIFFER: In terms of Republican messaging and legislating, how prevalent are these culture war issues?

SNELL: Well, right now, at least nine states are considering bills to restrict or criminalize drag shows, and more than a dozen states are considering bills banning instruction around gender and sexual orientation. Now, that is in addition to states like Florida, where policies on these issues are already law. The governor there, Ron DeSantis, put it this way in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Florida is where woke goes to die.

SNELL: Now, this is central to his political image and could be central to his political ambitions. DeSantis is expected to run for president, and, you know, he has not announced yet. But he is pushing ahead with more restrictive laws for schools, and Florida's Legislature is also considering a ban on abortions at six weeks. So at the national level, House Republicans passed a parental rights bill last week, and that was aimed at giving parents more oversight in schools. But critics say the policy could lead to book bans and measures blocking sex ed or other topics in the classroom.

PFEIFFER: How are voters responding to this political approach?

SNELL: Yeah, so our latest poll shows that a majority of respondents oppose bills that would criminalize providing gender transition care for minors. Now, 54% of registered voters said they would oppose such legislation and 43% support criminalizing that care. But when you dig deeper, nearly two-thirds of Republicans support criminalizing gender transition care. But the number to watch is the independents. As we know, independents have been critical in recent elections, and they may have a major impact on next year's presidential election. You know, more than half of those independents do not want to criminalize that care.

PFEIFFER: And that's just one issue in this debate. What about other issues?

SNELL: You know, the poll also asked about banning drag shows, which has become kind of another flashpoint in this moment. And again, we see 58% of respondents oppose restrictions, including 57% of independents. That once again puts them - 61% of Republicans who support the bans at odds with the national sentiment. You know, and this isn't the only cultural issue where Republicans are pursuing legislation at odds with a majority of the national electorate. We have seen poll after poll showing that a large majority of Americans support protections for abortion rights, for example. And that issue cost Republicans in the midterms significantly.

PFEIFFER: Kelsey, if the polling indicates that most people oppose these Republican-led positions, then how risky is it for Republicans to keep going along with this kind of messaging?

SNELL: You know, to stay with abortion, some within their own party are warning about overstepping. Take Nancy Mace. She's a Republican congresswoman from South Carolina, and she has been introducing bills to set more moderate positions for the party, particularly when it comes to attempts to restrict abortion rights and access to contraception.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY MACE: These are not messages that we can stand behind, and we have to stand up to the extremism and show some balance.

SNELL: But the focus from Republicans on social issues has actually started to shift some opinions. Our polling team asked about gender transition care for minors in 2021, and support for criminalizing that care went from just 28% to now 43%. And that is a huge shift. The next election really is still far away. Many Republicans believe they can convince more people in that time, though there really is a risk that they could go too far.

PFEIFFER: NPR political correspondent Kelsey Snell, thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.

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