Republicans are increasingly accusing Democrats of being soft on pedophilia as the midterm fights heat up. Democrats’ response? A collective eye roll.
Both in the fight to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court and in state-level battles over LGBTQ rights, hard-line Republicans have taken to smearing their Democratic opponents as “groomers” who are soft on pedophilia.
Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene made it more explicit last week, calling Democrats the “party of pedophiles.”
So how should Democrats respond? Or should they respond at all?
Half of Republicans—and almost a third of Americans overall—said in a recent YouGov poll that it’s definitely or probably true that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.” That’s a slight uptick in belief of that core QAnon conspiracy from when the pollster started asking the question in 2020.
“I see polling that shows that that outrageous characterization is landing with some folks,” California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell told VICE News. “But you also don't really want to give oxygen to the land of misfit toys, which is where this is coming [from].”
New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of House Democratic leadership, said the best thing Democrats can do is ignore the attack and focus on the pocketbook issues that polls show Americans care about the most—and the big reason Democrats are in a bleak position heading into this fall’s midterm elections.
“I don’t even really pay attention to anything she says because she has nothing rational to say. It seems to me to be a ridiculous allegation,” Jeffries told VICE News when asked about Greene’s remarks.
“We’re focused right now on getting things done for everyday Americans: lowering costs, addressing gas prices, and inflation. They can continue to peddle lies and conspiracy theories,” he said.
But claims made in bad faith can still pay political dividends, making even bonkers attacks risky to ignore. Democrats largely shrugged off GOP claims last election that even their most moderate members were socialists who wanted to defund the police‚ and then they were shocked to lose House seats in 2020. During a furious post-election conference call, many centrists complained their party had done too little to push back against those GOP claims.
Republican fearmongering about a looming “migrant caravan” helped Republicans minimize red-state losses in 2018; their dire warnings that Ebola and ISIS were coming to suburbs near you helped power the 2014 GOP midterm wave election. Hard-right claims that President Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen helped spur GOP turnout in the 2010 Republican wave election.
Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, the front-runner to be his party’s Senate nominee in the GOP-leaning state, said Democrats must “call it out” when Republicans call them anti-cop socialists.
“I just think it's so bizarre. I think most people are gonna think like, ‘What are you talking about?’ It's not what 80 percent of Ohioans are even thinking about,” Ryan said. “They’re thinking about their job, their wages, and they're gonna vote for the candidate who's gonna fight for them.”
Greene demurred when asked if she thought the attacks would help her party in the midterms—but she stood by her remarks.
“I don’t know. Being pro-pedophile is pretty bad, though,” she told VICE News last week as she walked onto the House floor. “I don’t think anyone should be pro-pedophile. They shouldn’t be for that horrible thing.”
(For the record, no Democratic candidates are running on a pro-pedophilia platform.)
Greene isn’t exactly the GOP’s greatest campaign strategist, and mainline Republicans have largely kept their messaging focused on surging inflation. But she’s not the only one pushing attacks that paint Democrats as pedophiles, dog-whistling to the chunk of the GOP that has bought into the QAnon conspiracy theory while aiming at riling up moderates who’ve never heard of the theory.
When LGBTQ activists dubbed Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t say gay” bill last month, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw fired back by calling it the “anti-grooming bill” and claiming anyone who opposed it was “probably a groomer, or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8-year-old children.” That echoed rhetoric used in QAnon circles as well as decades-old homophobic lies that LGBTQ people are more prone to pedophilia.
One America News host Chanel Rion went even further over the weekend, calling President Biden the “groomer-in-chief” and describing Judge Jackson as the “queen of child porn apologists.”
Conservatives have lobbed similar attacks against the Disney Corporation for belatedly opposing Florida’s “Don’t say gay” bill—Fox News’ Laura Ingraham recently accused the company of pushing “propaganda for grooming."
And while most swing voters won’t likely buy into straight-up calling Democrats pedophiles, there are more subtle, effective, and related attacks being pushed by the GOP that they clearly see as politically effective, especially in culturally conservative states.
The hearings to confirm Jackson to the Supreme Court showed how Republicans can use coded language to try to scare moderates while dog-whistling to racists and QAnon believers in the GOP base.
Greene’s claim that Democrats are the “party of pedophiles” came after senators like Missouri Republican Josh Hawley and Texas Republican Ted Cruz spent weeks cherry-picking a handful of cases from Jackson’s record to argue, as Hawley put it, that she had a “pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes.”
Democrats have fired back by pointing out that many Republican lawmakers stayed quiet when President Trump endorsed Roy Moore’s Alabama Senate bid following multiple allegations that Moore had sexually harassed and assaulted underage women. Others pointed out that Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz remains a House member in good stead even though he’s facing an investigation into whether he trafficked a 17-year-old girl for sex.
“I'm not sure that someone who refused to tell people whether he would vote for Roy Moore is an effective and credible messenger on this,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki retorted last month when asked about Hawley’s attacks on Jackson’s sentencing record.
When the White House blasted Hawley’s rhetoric as an "embarrassing QAnon-signaling smear,” he regarded it as a political winner.
"If they want to dismiss parents' concerns about their children's safety and they want to dismiss concerns about crime as a conspiracy theory, take that argument to the polls,” he said.
Fact-checkers have shown that’s a misleading claim, but that didn’t stop him and other Republicans. On the day Jackson was confirmed, Cruz declared that as a judge she showed “a particular pattern of leniency for sex offenders that is deeply dismaying.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell used more traditional rhetoric to make a similar attack, arguing Jackson’s “long and disturbing record of using judicial activism to go soft on crime” was the reason he’d oppose her confirmation.
This rhetoric comes amid an outbreak of legislation targeting LGBTQ youth across the country, with many bills seeking to ban trans youth from high school athletics, prevent them from accessing gender-affirming medical care, or ban teachers and students from discussing LGBTQ issues in the classroom. According to the pro-LGBTQ group Freedom for All Americans, at least 166 anti-LGBTQ bills are currently under consideration. This push has already factored into GOP ads—Republicans say Missouri Rep. Vicki Hartzler’s ad where she promises to keep “men pretending to be women” out of college sports helped vaunt her to the front of the pack in a crowded Senate primary field.
The specific “pedophile” attacks haven’t been put into campaign ads, and might never be by mainstream candidates. But they don’t need to be explicit—Republicans can talk about Democrats being soft on child porn or hint they’re damaging children by supporting pro-LGBTQ policies to gin up base voters whose ears have been trained to hear the dog-whistles.
Texas Rep. Colin Allred, who won a swing seat in 2018 and held it in 2020, said the “pedophile” attacks were aimed at ginning up the hardcore GOP base, not moving swing voters.
“I think it's mostly for the hardcore QAnon crowd. I don't think that it's taken seriously by most people and it's not the kind of thing that you can really run on,” he said. “I don't think that it has the same resonance as something like [defunding] law enforcement or socialism. I think it's such a fringe attack, just a fringe idea. I think it feels to a group that is already going to be not in the swing voter category anyways. So I don't see this as an effective political strategy.”
But Allred’s own state has become an epicenter of this rhetorical fight since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered Texas agencies in late February to investigate parents of trans kids for “child abuse” if they helped them get gender-affirming care.
Other Democrats say the attacks are ludicrous but argue that Democrats should be ready to call them out, not ignore them.
“It’s an easy thing to combat. It’s so out-there,” said Democratic strategist Brad Howard, who’s worked on races for a number of moderate Democratic candidates. “You respond with values-based statements, saying at the end of the day we want every child to have an equal opportunity to get ahead. You can condemn the transphobic rhetoric from the right and pledge to work with parents.”
Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who has a trans child, said the “absurd” attacks undercut Republicans’ claims that they’re pro-family.
“To tell a child that what they're doing is illegal because they are actually being who they are, is absolutely not just outrageous, it's detrimental to their mental health,” she told VICE News. “And to criminalize parents who are trying to support their children is about the biggest opposite of being pro-family that I can imagine. So if Republicans want to call themselves pro-family, and then attack children and attack parents for being good parents, then they can't call themselves pro-family. It’d be hypocritical."