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The GOP's culture-war fixation on transgender athletes ensnares rising star Kristi Noem

GOP Gov. Kristi Noem was rising among conservatives. Then she was presented with South Dakota House Bill 1217.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 27, 2021.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 27.Octavio Jones / Reuters file

Kristi Noem's star was on the rise.

The South Dakota governor, a Republican celebrated by former President Donald Trump and other conservatives for her outspoken anti-shutdown, anti-mask mandate approach to the pandemic, enjoyed high approval ratings, appeared frequently on Fox News and delivered a prime-time address at the Republican National Convention. Trump even took a high-profile trip to Noem's state last summer, offering effusive praise.

The energy culminated at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, when those factors contributed to her second-place showing in the event's straw poll for presidential nominee in 2024 that did not include Trump. She trailed only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who like Noem has become a Republican hero for his antagonism toward masks and shutdowns in his state. (Trump won the straw poll that included him.)

Then came South Dakota House Bill 1217.

The legislation would have prohibited transgender women and girls from participating in girl's and college sports in the state. It was a bill Noem had initially tweeted she was "excited" to sign. But, amid pressure from business interests, the possibility of losing NCAA collegiate athletic events and the threat of further litigation, Noem performed a "style-and-form" veto, kicking it back to the statehouse and demanding changes that proponents of the bill said "gut" the legislation.

The legislative session ended Monday, with the bill effectively killed for the year unless Noem calls a special session, which she has expressed interest in doing.

The backlash from conservatives, state lawmakers and right-wing media was swift. In a combative interview last week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused Noem of "caving" to the NCAA.

“No, that’s not right at all, Tucker," she said. "In fact, you’re wrong completely."

The episode reveals what has become an increasingly tense relationship between the Republican Party's socially conservative base and broader business interests, with politicians like Noem sometimes caught in between. It is also the latest salvo in a nationwide Republican-led effort to keep transgender athletes out of women's and girl's sports, which has ramped up considerably since President Joe Biden took office. That effort has emerged as an outgrowth of earlier "bathroom bills" and of a Republican Party that has further zeroed in on cultural issues it believes are part of a winning electoral formula.

For Noem, running afoul of this new GOP litmus test — despite signing two executive orders on Monday calling on state education officials to ensure that participation in girls' and women's sports at the K-12 or college-level is limited to those who can provide proof of their biological sex at birth, though they lack an enforcement mechanism — could range from a brief hiccup to possibly derailing any aspirations for higher office.

"It's an unforced error," one national Republican strategist told NBC News. "She had nothing to lose and everything to gain by signing that bill. And the fact her and her staff stoked it by antagonizing social media was borderline incompetence. It makes no sense. She cedes ground now to DeSantis."

One South Dakota Republican, meanwhile, who believes Noem is likely to make a presidential bid expressed "surprise" that she has come under such scrutiny over the veto.

"The leadership trait of intestinal fortitude that won over a lot of conservatives during the Covid pandemic is on display here as well," this person said. "She's sticking to her guns."

Noem's office, which declined to comment to NBC News, later called the backlash she faced an example of "uninformed cancel culture."

Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, a group that has been instrumental in pushing similar legislation in statehouses across the country, said Noem's rejection was akin to then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's backpedaling on his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015 when faced with similar pushback.

"She pulled a Mike Pence, and she caved on this issue and it's going to cost her," he said. "No social conservatives and no one in the conservative media world is going to trust anything she says anymore because of the amount of spin that she's done. It's not just that she caved, it's that she's actively telling mistruths and misrepresenting what has actually happened here."

'So trans kids have become the new culture war'

South Dakota is just one state in the broader Republican push to bar transgender girls and women from participating in girls' and college sports. This month, three other GOP-led states have passed similar bills. In Arkansas and Mississippi, those bills are set to become law this summer, while such legislation has been introduced in more than 20 other states.

Yet this is not being driven by any surge of transgender girls and women in those sports. In South Dakota, for example, the total number of transgender girls who have participated in K-12 girl's sports in recent years is exceedingly low. Nationally, The Associated Press reported that lawmakers who've backed these bills have struggled to give examples in their own state.

Jett Jonelis, advocacy manager at the ACLU of South Dakota, told NBC News that these efforts are the result of a shift in focus from "restrooms and locker rooms" to "excluding trans youth from activities that affirmed their sense of self" as well as health care.

"And they kind of an attempt to create solutions for problems that don't exist, if that's health care or after-school sports," Jonelis said. "It's just kind of figuring out what they can attack and how they can further push transgender people out of public life."

Instead, the issue has generated attention as a result of Biden's moves to reinstate and expand transgender rights that had been curtailed under Trump, while conservative media has amplified stories of transgender women and girls' participation in those sports.

Trump himself addressed the topic at length in his CPAC speech last month, saying that "women's sports as we know it will die" so long as transgender athletes are permitted to participate.

"I mean, it goes to the question, if we can't conserve as a movement, the differences between men and women in law, and the protections that we've fought for, for women, what are we even conserving?" Schilling said.

Asked about the relatively limited instances of transgender women and girls participating in women's sports, he said: "Even if it happens to one girl and one girl loses a track race or a scholarship or anything like that, it's too many."

Susan Williams, executive director of the South Dakota-based transgender advocacy group The Transformation Project, said in an interview that the recent push against transgender rights is the result of social conservatives having "lost the gay marriage fights."

"So trans kids have become the new culture war," Williams said.

In South Dakota, Williams said the key voices missing from the debate over Bill 1217 are of those it would most affect. Her organization has sought to meet with Noem so she can hear from trans people. So far, Williams has been unsuccessful.

"The voices of the people that this bill would affect were not being heard and were never given a voice to share how this legislation would affect their lives," she said.

As for Noem, she moved this week to plant her flag in a new conservative culture war front — uproar over rapper Lil Nas X's "Satan Shoes."

"Our kids are being told that this kind of product is, not only OK, it's exclusive," Noem tweeted. "But do you know what's more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul. We are in a fight for the soul of our nation. We need to fight hard. And we need to fight smart. We have to win."