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GOP seizes on women’s sports as unlikely wedge issue

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GOP seizes on women's sports as unlikely wedge issue

“This issue will help [the] GOP win midterms,” said Stephen Miller, the former Trump White House aide who helped write his CPAC speech.

Some Republicans say touting the issue will unite two key elements of a winning electoral coalition: the party’s socially conservative base, which mostly rejects the expansion of gay and transgender rights, and more moderate voters in the suburbs, who are less reliable GOP supporters but may revolt against what they see as Democratic overreach.

“It’s a cross-cutting issue,” Miller added. “Biden’s activist staff are clearly making him embrace policies that alienate non-ideological voters.”

But Republicans’ claim as defenders of women’s sports is a tenuous one, at best. For the duration of Trump’s presidency, he was largely at odds with women athletes at the collegiate and professional levels, with most championship teams refusing to visit the White House in protest of his policies and personal treatment of women. And just last month, former appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who introduced a bill last September to prohibit transgender women from competing in gender-segregated sports, sold her stake in Atlanta’s WNBA franchise after the players on the team openly campaigned for the Democrat who defeated her, now-Sen. Raphael Warnock, in a special election in January.

“If Republicans are thoughtfully talking about this — by being supportive of transgender Americans while identifying an equity issue — it could be attractive to more moderate suburban voters. But if it’s introduced cruelly or as a way to ‘shame the libs,’ this isn’t going to be helpful,” said veteran GOP strategist Rob Stutzman.

Several prominent Republican officials and potential 2024 hopefuls have already begun testing messages around women’s sports. Some claim transgender women enjoy performance advantages over their cisgender teammates and competitors, and could thus cause the latter group to lose out on scholarships and collegiate opportunities. Currently, the National Collegiate Athletic Association requires transgender women to undergo 12 months of treatment to suppress testosterone before they are permitted to compete with other women.

Others claim trans-inclusive sports policies are an infringement on women’s rights or a violation of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that paved the way for women’s equality in sports and education.

“Across the sporting world, the game is being rigged against women and in favor of biological men,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is widely expected to launch a 2024 presidential bid, wrote in a National Review op-ed last month.

Haley accused Biden of “paving the way for a federal mandate that all schools receiving federal funding let biological men play on women’s sports teams” after he signed an executive order to curtail discrimination against LGBTQ people in healthcare, housing and schools at the beginning of his term. “The order was framed as a matter of transgender rights. But really, it was an attack on women’s rights.”

The issue has been percolating at the state level since early 2020, when several Republican-led states began pushing for bills to limit or ban the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports. But the recent attention is part of a sharper focus on cultural issues that conservatives believe could resonate with the swing-state suburbanites whose support the GOP hemorrhaged last fall.

“This is the wedge issue that will bring suburban women back to the polls and increase their support for Republicans, and Republicans would be foolish not to lean into it,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a socially conservative group that has been privately urging Republicans to take on the subject since last year.

“I hear from mothers all the time who are getting up at the crack of dawn to take their daughters to swim practice or attending all-weekend track meets, and they do not want biological men competing on their daughters’ teams. They know that it would be detrimental to their daughters’ abilities to achieve scholarships and recognition,” Nance added.

Much of the GOP rhetoric surrounding women’s sports can be traced to Biden’s efforts on LGTBQ issues during his first weeks as president and the recent House passage of the Equality Act, which would expand anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans. In addition to taking executive action, Biden recently directed his administration to withdraw government support for a lawsuit against the state of Connecticut that seeks to block transgender athletes from competing in girls’ high school sports.

Proponents of the House bill and Biden’s actions dismissed conservative efforts to use women’s sports as a cudgel against Democrats as cruel and unlikely to yield the results Republicans desire in next year’s midterm elections.

“If Republicans want to earn the votes of suburban women, the issue that’s going to do it for them is being effective on issues that folks are having to confront at the dinner table. This is not that issue,” said Kate Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.

Oakley also cited the Connecticut court case as a reason to reject GOP “fear-mongering” around women’s sports, noting that Selina Soule, the lead plaintiff in the case, is now a track athlete at the College of Charleston. Oakley also pointed to recent instances in which Republican state legislators who have backed bills to ban transgender women from competing in women’s sports have struggled to identify cases in their own states where an issue arose over a transgender athlete.

“This is an issue that’s completely manufactured,” Oakley said. “There are certainly folks who have daughters who are truly college-bound — and then there are parents who, let’s be honest, think that their daughters are. The time has passed for these arguments, and they’re going to fall apart really quickly.”

But conservative operatives who are hoping that Republicans will maintain a focus on women’s sports in the coming months claimed that they are simply adopting an approach first used by their political opponents.

“This is what Democrats do so well that Republicans don’t,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, a group that launched anti-transgender ads about women’s sports during the 2019 Kentucky gubernatorial race and 2020 general election. “They bring up the statistic of violence against transgender people — and you look at the numbers, and it’s, like, 40 people.” (An HRC report published last November identified at least 37 instances in which transgender or gender non-confirming people were killed in 2020).

One potential roadblock for Republicans who have latched onto women’s sports as a new wedge issue — from Haley and Trump to Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — is that a growing number of GOP voters support nondiscrimination laws and protections for LGBTQ Americans. For example, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute last year found that 61 percent of Republicans supported nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans, up 5 percentage points from the year prior.

Republicans aren’t unanimously behind the strategy. Two sources familiar with the matter said Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel was part of a coalition of Trump advisers who encouraged the former president not to wade into transgender issues during his reelection campaign. And in response to a POLITICO inquiry over whether the RNC has any plans for messaging around women’s sports, spokesperson Mandi Merritt offered no indication that the committee would join Republican lawmakers and governors in their criticism of trans-inclusive sports policies.

“Republicans are proud to have doubled our LGBT support over the last four years, and we will continue to grow our big tent by supporting measures that promote fairness and effectively balance protections for LGBT Americans and those with deeply held religious beliefs,” Merritt said in an emailed statement.

Meanwhile, Stutzman warned that current figures who are talking about transgender issues — including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who hung a sign outside her Capitol Hill office last week that read, “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. Trust the science!” — have failed to introduce “a nuanced perspective” and run the risk of making the GOP appear generally transphobic.

“Every once in a while there’s an issue that has people frustrated even outside of the culture wars, and I think there is probably political grounds to be gained in the suburbs if Republicans across the spectrum can approach this correctly,” he said.

The topic already appears to be gaining attention among GOP candidates who are looking to make inroads with suburban voters while also burnishing their conservative credentials. In a fundraising email sent to her supporters this week, Ohio Senate candidate Jane Timken, a staunch Trump supporter and former state GOP chair, accused Democrats of pursuing “a mission to create a completely UNFAIR playing field for young girls and women.”

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‘It’s thrilling, exciting and terrifying’: NASA prepares for first helicopter flight on Mars

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'It's thrilling, exciting and terrifying': NASA prepares for first helicopter flight on Mars

Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars nestled under the belly of the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet in February. The helicopter, which will only work for 31 days and can fly for 90 seconds max, is intended to demonstrate that flight is possible on another planet, which could open the door for uncrewed aircraft to see parts of the planet rovers can’t access or act as scouts for astronauts on future missions.

Ingenuity will be flying in an atmosphere that’s just one percent as dense as Earth’s atmosphere. That means that while the helicopter will be just 10 feet off the ground, it’s as if it was flying at 100,000 feet on Earth. For comparison, most commercial planes fly between 30,000 and 40,000 feet.

“It turns out, if you take a small dual-rotor counter rotating helicopter that weighs about four pounds and you make those carbon fiber blades fatter and spin them five-times faster than an Earth helicopter, you can get enough lift” to fly on Mars, Hogg said.

Hogg, who has worked at NASA since 1997, spoke about how his team is preparing for the historic flight and how the idea for a flying drone on another planet dates back to the 1990s.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your role in the Perseverance mission?

I’ve been working on the Mars 2020 project since 2012. Today I’m the deputy surface mission manager for Mars 2020.

We plan what the rover is doing the following Martian sol [a day on Mars.] I’m the deputy running that team, so … we are running the mission. … It takes an army of people to pull that off in a way that it’s safe so we don’t lose our billion dollar asset but also in a productive way to get all the science done.

How is the team prepping for Ingenuity’s first flight?

On Saturday, we successfully completed a whole series of steps to deploy Ingenuity to the Martian surface. We spent 10 days on Mars doing that, which may seem like a long time, but a lot of important things need to happen.

After it’s been packaged up and safely attached to the bottom of the rover, it’s 150 million miles away. It made it all the way to Mars, survived launch, entry, descent and landing. We don’t want to fumble at the 99-yard line.

Over the last week or so … we finished assessing the flight zone with the rover’s cameras, we dropped off the debris shield outside the flight zone, then we drove to one end of the flight zone to begin deployment of Ingenuity to the surface. We went through several steps to do that. We lowered it on an arm with a little motor, powered it to vertical position, and finished deploying the legs. … Then we spent an extra day or two making sure there was enough clearance for the rover to drive away. … We needed to get the rover off and away so sunlight could hit Ingenuity’s solar cells within a day. It was critical to make that happen so Ingenuity could charge up its batteries and have enough energy to survive the Martian night.

Is there a camera on Ingenuity to get aerial shots of Mars?

Yes. There are two. One is a black and white lower resolution navigation camera that captures imagery at a high rate and uses computer vision to figure out where the helicopter is. The second color camera is like what you’d have on your phone for getting some color images as well.

Where did this idea come from?

What kicked off this whole thing is the fact that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab landed the first rover on Mars in the 1990s. … We landed this microwave-sized rover and it was the first time we roved on another planet. … There was discussion in various corners of JPL about what about a flying machine? … In 2013, they had a flying machine research lab. Our then-director at JPL Charles Elachi had gone to a conference and came back to JPL wondering if we could do a flying machine. He toured the drone lab at JPL and said let’s put together a proposal for Mars 2020. The deadline was only 2 months away. Bob Balaram [the chief Ingenuity engineer] and his team burned the midnight oil and got a proposal in.

What makes flight so difficult on Mars?

It’s flying in such a thin atmosphere. But also, if you take a step back, we’re doing something on another planet that has a one way light time of 15 minutes. That means if I bought a remote control car and got it to the Martian surface alive and well, and hit go on the joystick, it would be 15 minutes before it started moving and another 15 minutes before I knew it was moving. … So you need an autonomous capability.

This is the next level of achievement I’m describing, being able to fly something in 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere on the surface of another planet that’s 150 million miles away. These are mind boggling engineering achievements we’re dealing with here. … It turns out, if you take a small dual-rotor counter rotating helicopter that weighs about four pounds and you make those carbon fiber blades fatter and spin them five times faster than an Earth helicopter, you can get enough lift to lift a very lightweight package.

So with the lag, it will fly and land before you even know it?

The flights are approximately 90 seconds on average. We send instructions for the day to the rover. The rover passes on instructions for the helicopter to a base station … over a radio connection after Ingenuity wakes up and gets in communication with the rover. … So sometime on Mars, … it will carry out those instructions for its first flight.

The results of that flight get sent during the flight to the base station, then relayed to the rover. Then the rover waits for a Mars orbiter to pass overhead and minutes or hours later, it relays everything that happened to the deep space network here on Earth [which takes 15 minutes.] Then we get the story of what happened on Mars and we unpack it all. Hopefully we will be celebrating.

All those steps happen with humans just waiting on Earth to see how it all plays out.

I can’t imagine how stressful that is.

I’m remembering Saturday afternoon. … We determined that the helicopter had dropped and it had turned on for the first time, so we knew it was alive. Then we allowed the rover to drive away. We were waiting for an hour and a half to see how the drive went and if we successfully uncovered helo to beat the 25-hour deadline [after which Ingenuity would not have enough battery charge to survive a night on Mars.] … There are moments where it feels like a week of your life is going by waiting to see if something is happening that you spent seven years engineering. It’s thrilling, exciting and terrifying. This is why we do what we do.

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Biden’s Quiet ‘Breakthrough’ In Talking About Race

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Biden’s Quiet ‘Breakthrough’ In Talking About Race

Since at least the mid-1980s, the pursuit of the archetypal “Reagan Democrat” suburban swing voter has been a lodestar guiding Democratic messaging. The strategy was straightforward: These socially moderate-to-conservative suburban white Americans largely were simpatico with Democrats on economic issues, but voted for the GOP in part because they believed Democrats were interested in pursuing racial justice at the expense of issues they viewed as more relevant to their own lives.

The result of that thinking was a “color-blind” approach to talking about economic policies and programs — emphasizing a “rising tide lifts all boats” message that glossed over or ignored racial disparities. But for reasons both ideological and strategic, that “color-blind” posture is no longer effective for Democrats — and, McGhee says, can actually backfire.

“Since the Obama era, the racial sorting of voters has included white voters moving to the Democratic Party because of their progressive views on race,” she says. “What holds together the progressive coalition is, yes, obviously, a sense that government can — and needs to — be a force for good and address our big crises. But also the coalition … thinks we have to talk about race, and doesn’t want to see politicians without the courage to address these obvious inequalities head-on.”

In this way, while the Biden administration’s massive investments in middle-class economic growth have been likened by some to the liberal heyday of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that comparison misses an important difference. The New Deal era was defined by policies that were “either explicitly, as in the housing subsidies, or implicitly, because of segregation in education and housing under the GI Bill, for whites only,” says McGhee. By contrast, she sees the Biden era as “a massive refilling of the pool of public goods for everyone.”

What explains that change? What shifted in American politics that prodded Democratic leadership to directly address the racial components of economic issues? And what’s the hidden history that led to the disinvestment in public goods just as Black Americans began to be included in what America saw as the “public”? To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with McGhee. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

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Cuomo’s Albany dominance takes backseat to political survival

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Cuomo’s Albany dominance takes backseat to political survival

The governor who once muscled his biggest priorities through the Capitol annually, rarely failing to come out on top, is now taking a decidedly lighter tread in negotiations with Senate Majority Leaders Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, according to half a dozen people familiar with the budget talks. Both Democratic leaders have taken a hard line against Cuomo over the past month, with Stewart-Cousins being among the first to call for his resignation and Heastie authorizing an impeachment investigation that commenced late last month.

Nearly a month after he vowed to not let his then-burgeoning sexual harassment scandal deter him from doing his job, Cuomo is now spending his days trying to reframe the now-tarnished narrative of his tenure as he faces the single greatest threat to his decades-long political career. He appears to be putting political survival ahead of his own policy priorities, playing nice with lawmakers as he zips around the state to tout progress on vaccines and announce steps to open up the state’s economy.

On Monday, Cuomo appeared deferential to legislators as he called the budget “the most complicated, the most ambitious and the hardest budget that we have done,” and applauded both chambers for working through pandemic restrictions.

“They’ve been working very hard, under very difficult circumstances,” Cuomo said. “So it’s been a complicated process on top of a complicated product. … But this budget will set the trajectory for the state for the next 10 years.”

He went on to tout the recent legalization of marijuana in New York and local police reform plans that are nearly in place across the state, neither of which were initiated through the budget. He made no mention of the deals he had cut to sign off on progressive priorities, including the agreement to temporarily raise taxes on those making more than $1 million a year, a move that will give New York City’s top earners the highest combined city and state tax rate in the country.

Cuomo‘s January budget proposal did include a similar tax hike on high earners that was worth about $1.5 billion, but he called it his “worst-case-scenario” budget. His administration backed away from the concept after the most recent federal relief package authorized about $12.5 billion in aid for New York.

The state Senate and Assembly both proposed raising more than $6.5 billion through tax increases even after they saw the federal dollars coming in, in part due to pushes from progressive members and advocates warning that a one-time influx of federal stimulus wouldn’t be enough to fix existing imbalances in the state’s financial planning.

Cuomo on Monday also made no mention of an influx of more than $4 billion in school funding that the final deal is expected to phase-in over three years through a system that progressives have long sought. Cuomo has resisted their demands, calling them political and labeling a years-old lawsuit over the issue “ghosts of the past and distractions from the present.”

Legislative leaders have said publicly that Cuomo’s scandals — both over his sexual harassment allegations and his administration’s attempt to hide the number of Covid-19 deaths tied to nursing homes — has had little effect on the budget process, which is largely driven by staff and their constitutional duty to pass a spending plan on time. But legislative sources and former Cuomo aides say it’s clear Democratic lawmakers are steering the budget negotiations this year, in contrast to the past.

“With that federal revenue and with state revenues shoring up pretty nicely, you have a budget that should not have been so hard to get done on time,“ said a former Cuomo aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to so as not to anger the governor. “So it seems pretty clear to me the lawmakers are saying, ‘we’re going to do it this way.’”

In years past, Cuomo has been able to wield considerable power in the Legislature by reaching out to rank-and-file members and their political power brokers. But that’s harder than ever with huge portions of Democrats in both chambers calling for his resignation last month.



Typically what you’d be doing is in order to get to the lawmakers you’d be working their constituency groups and their advocacy groups and that would influence the lawmakers,” the former official said. “But the progressive groups, every single one of them, wants to see them gone.”

But some say the governor — or his office at least — has been pushing hard in certain areas, such as enhanced spending authority for federal funds and stricter checks on how unemployment might be distributed to undocumented immigrants.

“I know a lot of people speculated as to whether he would be weaker this time around, but I haven’t seen any sign of that,” said Assembly Health Chair Richard Gottfried, the chamber’s longest-serving member.

Still, Cuomo has in past weeks fled to friendlier waters when he shows his face in public, fully engaged in the craft of narrative revision. Earlier Monday, he was in his native Queens to announce public service campaign to encourage vaccinations, part of a downstate tour visiting pop-up vaccination sites in communities of color he had promised months ago to prioritize in the state’s distribution program. Those events, more often than not closed to reporters, have given him the ability to solicit public praise — specifically from his supporters in the Black community who have thanked him for his follow-through.

On Monday, he received compliments from Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who last month said Cuomo should resign if it was shown he couldn’t effectively lead the state. And Queens Assemblymember Vivian Cook, who worked on Cuomo’s father’s campaigns and has known the governor since he was young, told the borough and state to “thank this son of Queens for making sure that we are taken care of.”

“We are proud and we are proud of him. So, no matter what you say or what you do, we’re going to stick by this man — he’s staying with us,” she said.

Cuomo’s mood during these kinds of public appearances have been almost buoyant, with bits like challenging former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia to arm wrestle during a jovial event to announce the Yankees and Mets could start their seasons with fans.

And when his chief counsel and budget czar joined a recent question-and-answer session by web cam, he teased them publicly for appearing glum.

“He’s looking very stern faced because he’s coming down to it — he only has a few days left to work on the budget,” Cuomo said of budget director Robert Mujica, who neither smiled nor responded. “You can see the stress on his face.“

“Business as usual” is an ancient ploy that has occasionally worked for embattled politicians patient enough to see a news cycle through.

“I think what you see the governor doing is trying to focus on the things that he knows the public likes and trying to ignore, to the extent possible, all the things that he doesn’t like,” said Steve Greenberg, the spokesperson for Siena College Research Institute.

Though the most recent polling from Siena found dips in his overall favorability and reelection prospects, 60 percent of voters still approved of his handling of the pandemic and a 48 percent plurality say he should continue to do his job despite the allegations.

But as the budget process wraps up in Albany, it’s likely eyes will again turn to the investigations into sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo’s handling of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and new reports that Cuomo recruited several members of his staff to produce his book about leadership during the pandemic.

The lawmakers and attorneys heading up the Assembly Judiciary’s impeachment probe have said it could take “months, rather than weeks” to compile any findings that would initiate the next steps. There is no timeline for the state Attorney General Tish James’ report, though Cuomo has asked the public to wait for its completion before drawing any conclusions about his behavior.

“I think the goal here is to run out the clock to the extent possible and hope that the Tish James report comes out in the middle of the summer when everyone is vaccinated and there’s all this stimulus money coming in,” said another former Cuomo aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

“He has in his back pocket [the] I’m-not-going-to-run-for-a-fourth-term card, and the closer we get to June [2022] primary, the more effective that is,” the official said. “But I would not underestimate his desire and intention for running for a fourth term.”

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