From stump speeches to a recent campaign ad, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's re-election campaign has been focusing on a hotly debated item in the so-called "culture wars," whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in female sports.
Paul is touting the endorsement of Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer who has risen to prominence as an outspoken opponent of transgender athletes playing on women and girls' teams.
"There’s a lot of different ways we can look at this," Paul said in an interview with Spectrum News.
"There’s the NCAA...There’s state legislation... and ultimately there may be federal legislation as well, but first thing first is just speaking out," he added.
Gaines has become an outspoken critic after tying for fifth place in the women’s 200-meter freestyle final with a transgender swimmer at the NCAA women’s championships.
“There’s so many sacrifices that I have made as a female athlete," Gaines said. "So much time goes into it and so upon my experience racing a transgender athlete and seeing the implications of what that has on people who have dedicated so much to get to that point ... I realized how wrong that was."
The political focus on transgender athletes follows fights over which bathrooms trans students are allowed to use something trans rights groups say is intended to exclude gender-non-conforming kids from regular life.
Peter Loge, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said he believes this recent ad is an attempt to fire up the Republican base and distract from other issues.
“It's obviously important to these athletes. It’s important to these families which makes it really personal," adding: "it has absolutely nothing to do with how much it costs me when I go to the grocery store or I fill my tank with gas,” Loge told Spectrum News.
Loge said that many Democrats are reluctant to push back aggressively on this topic.
"There’s really no political upside in this issue, which is why it’s easy for Republicans to jump on it, '' Loge said. "They get to say here’s this divisive thing.”
Democrat Charles Booker, Paul's challenger in November's election, told Spectrum News that the Kentucky Republican's actions are "absolutely dangerous."
"He is sowing division at every opportunity possible,” Booker said.
Booker's office also pointed Spectrum News to Paul’s support of abortion restrictions, and how those restrictions impact women.
"[Paul] is pulling out marginalized groups who are already ignored and abandoned and turning them into a problem by demonizing them,” Booker said.
The midterm elections take place on Nov. 8.