Former President Donald Trump earns high marks for his “pro-family” platform while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made combatting “wokeness” an everyday calling card on the campaign trail, somehow remains largely “a question mark.”
At least, that is, according to the American Principles Project.
Influential in social conservative circles, the think tank will soon release a primary scorecard assessing where each Republican presidential candidate stands on six issues, such as banning sex-change surgeries for minors, prohibiting biological men from participating in women’s sports, and combatting what they see as “gender ideology” in the classroom. Their assessment, drawn from public statements made by each candidate, was disputed by some and remains controversial.
Obtained first by RealClearPolitics, the scorecard reflects an increased appetite among social conservatives for a president who will play a more active federal role in the ongoing culture war, even if that means hurdling the limited-government guardrails many on the right once held dear.
“American families are under attack by the Biden administration and Democrat politicians nationwide,” said APP President Terry Schilling before adding, “It is critically important not only that the next Republican president be pro-family but also that he or she take action federally to defend families.”
This kind of litmus test seemed to surprise Trump, who has repeatedly pledged to “fight for parents’ rights,” but who also told supporters this summer, while commenting on the shifting political landscape, “Of course you fight for parents’ rights! Whoever thought that you’d have to say that as a politician?”
On this front, Trump has explicitly pledged that his Department of Education would impose “severe consequences” and even pull federal funding if school officials suggest to students that “they could be trapped in the wrong body.” For that pledge, APP gave the former president their check of approval.
The group also gave Trump a passing grade for promising to enact a federal ban on sex-change surgeries for minors and to bar federal funding for any such operation. Similarly, he earned high marks for backing legislation that would use Title IX to prohibit biological men from competing in women’s sports and for vowing to rescind Biden administration policies that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Under the section labeled “protect kids from online porn at the federal level,” the group noted that Trump, who made the cover of Playboy magazine in the 1990s, “has not released a statement regarding age verification for pornography sites.”
For some voters, particularly evangelicals, the primary could come down to picking a champion in the culture war. Traditional issue sets, like the economy and foreign policy, still take center stage, but there is a feeling among social conservatives that they are under attack in a fight they didn’t pick. And now the party wholeheartedly embraces that conflict. When it comes to the culture war, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told RCP last year, “Democrats are the aggressors.”
Perhaps no Republican embraced this fight as eagerly and as early as Ron DeSantis. Ahead of the curve, the Florida governor delighted social conservatives, not just for promising to make his state “where woke goes to die,” but for matching that rhetoric with action throughout his time in office.
He was lambasted for signing legislation banning gender-transition surgeries for minors in Florida. He has earned numerous rebukes from the White House for signing a six-week abortion ban. He went to war with Disney after the corporation balked at a Florida education law that prohibits “classroom discussion” of sexual orientation through third grade, a fight that Trump later panned as “unnecessary.”
And yet, under four of the six listed criteria, APP gave the governor a question mark.
Their litmus test includes a federal ban on “sex changes for minors,” a ban on federal taxpayer dollars funding “sex change procedures,” implementing federal “women’s sports protections,” federal bans on “transgender indoctrination in schools,” federal regulation “to protect kids from online porn,” and a federal ban on “racial discrimination in government.”
Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign, told RealClearPolitics that “the governor has been clear on these issues and supports all of those efforts within the confines of the Constitution.”
Any qualification frustrates Schilling and company, who want explicit policy promises now and who prefer that constitutional issues and questions of limited government get sorted out in the courts later. The APP president called it “political malpractice to not tell voters what you will do as president,” adding that it was “unfortunate that some candidates have yet to pledge to take federal action if elected, or – like Gov. DeSantis – have implied they are uncertain if it will be possible for them to do it.”
This kind of criticism is foreign to the Florida governor for the simple reason that DeSantis has not shied away from social issues. In fact, just this week, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed him, calling him both “principled” and “results-driven” while specifically citing his aggressive stance on abortion, which Trump called “terrible.”
The scorecard gives DeSantis a stamp of approval for his promise to oppose “taxpayer-funded sex changes” and for pledging to use Title IX “to protect girls and women athletes.” The group dinged him, however, for not, in their estimation, laying out a comprehensive policy to ban sex-change surgeries for minors, detailing his federal education policy, or specifying a whole-of-government approach to end Biden’s DEI policies.
Despite that criticism, the governor has discussed each of these issues previously, often pushing the debate farther to the right and pressing his competition to follow him.
“I got that done in Florida,” DeSantis said in July when a local Wisconsin radio show asked if transgender surgeries should be criminalized. “And I think that should be done across the country.”
Similarly, while DeSantis has yet to release an education policy, he has promised to use the accreditation system “to get our” colleges and universities “back on the right track.” Last month in Iowa, the governor told a local NBC News affiliate that the culture at Ivy League universities had become “Marxist” and “toxic.” Reform was necessary, he added, because “we should not be using your tax dollars for that.”
And concerning what social conservatives bemoan as racial discrimination in the federal government, in June, DeSantis singled out the Department of Justice for reform, arguing that the DOJ and FBI were too “concerned about things like critical race theory.”
Many candidates haven’t been willing to go as far as DeSantis. For instance, some, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, earned a rebuke from the social conservative group for insisting that the federal government ought not play a role in regulating sex-change surgeries for minors.
The American Principles Project reflects a new appetite for a comprehensive culture war among some social conservatives, even if that means leaping at federal prohibitions long before constitutional questions are settled. The group has promised to update its scorecard throughout the primary, but it shows little patience with even the most stalwart culture war conservatives who disagree with them. “These are no-brainer issues,” Schilling said, “and we hope all the candidates will be motivated by this to clarify their commitment to taking strong federal action to protect families.”