Religious Conservative Groups Use Age Verification Battles to Discipline Dissenting Republicans

Religious Conservative Groups Use Age Verification Battles to Discipline Dissenting Republicans

PIERRE, S.D. — Religious conservative leaders and publications celebrated the defeat of sitting Republican state Senator Michael Walsh in a primary election on Tuesday, boasting of the success of their efforts to target him exclusively because he voted against the anti-porn age verification bill they supported.

In online comments, Walsh’s religious conservative detractors described their campaign against him using violent terms like “scalping” and images like a bullseye targeting their fellow party member for elimination.

Terry Schilling, leader of the well-funded, pro-censorship conservative lobby American Principles Project (APP) posted on his X account, “First scalp collected on age verification,” followed by an anti-Walsh ad which his group produced.

The ad shows a map of the U.S. with the 17 states that have passed age verification laws painted Republican red, claiming those laws “protect kids from online pornography.”

“But not South Dakota,” the APP ad continues, claiming Walsh “sided with the porn industry instead of with families” and urging voters to vote for someone else who will “side with us instead of creeps on the internet.”

Walsh received 39% of the vote, coming in second to Greg Blanc, who received 55% in a three-way race.

APP Political Director Joe Proenza posted the election results on X, adding, “Earlier this year, Michael Walsh voted with the porn companies to stop age verification in South Dakota. Next year, Michael Walsh won’t be voting for shit.” He also warned other dissenting Republicans, “Fight against protections for children, and we will send you home.”

Religious conservative activist William E. Simon Sr., who is affiliated with the Heritage Foundation,

posted the election’s results on X adding, “Earlier this year, Michael Walsh voted with the porn companies to stop age verification in South Dakota. Next year, Michael Walsh won’t be voting for shit.” He also threatened other dissenting Republicans to support the controversial age verification bills or “we will send you home.”

Religious conservative activist William E. Simon Sr., affiliated with the DeVos Center and the Heritage Foundation, replied to Schilling’s post with another direct threat: “That’s the way: a focused [bullseye emoji].”

Reporting on the primary results, conservative Catholic publication Catholic Vote called Walsh a “pro-pornography Republican state senator” and attributed his election loss to his having been “the deciding vote to kill an age-verification bill that would have protected children from online pornography.”

Opponents of the bills — including Free Speech Coalition and many other free speech and digital rights organizations — have noted that the current slew of enacted and proposed AV laws are not written in a way that allows for straightforward compliance by adult sites to prevent minors from accessing adult content, and will most likely further endanger them by sending them to unregulated offshore rogue websites.

Catholic Vote reported that even though most state age verification bills have passed by large bipartisan margins, South Dakota’s HB 1257 “was unique among such bills in that it had received significant opposition from Republicans.” The GOP controls the South Dakota Senate 31-4.

HB 1257 was killed through a 4-3 procedural vote among seven Republicans on the South Dakota Senate Judiciary Committee. The other senators who voted alongside Walsh — Michael Rohl, David Wheeler and Helene Duhamel — all successfully weathered the primaries in “safe” districts where they had strong support, leading out-of-state operators like Schilling to zero in on Walsh in order to teach a lesson to other independent-thinking Republicans who may be concerned about the unconstitutional implications of the age verification laws, all copycat versions of model bills drafted by anti-porn activists.

APP Policy Director Jon Schweppe wrote on X that Walsh should have “voted for age verification to protect kids.”

“Oh well. His opponent will next year!” he added.

Main Image: American Principles Project’s Terry Schilling

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