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GOP culture war’s fixation on trans athletes traps rising star Kristi Noem

Kristi Noem’s star was on the rise.

The governor of South Dakota, a Republican celebrated by former President Donald Trump and other conservatives for his open approach to the pandemic’s anti-closure and anti-mask mandate, has received high approval ratings, has emerged frequently on Fox News and delivered a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention. Trump even took a high-profile trip to Noem State last summer, offering effusive praise.

The energy peaked at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, when these factors contributed to his second place in the event’s straw poll for the 2024 presidential candidate that did not include Trump. She only followed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who, like Noem, became a Republican hero for his antagonism towards masks and closures in his state. (Trump won the straw poll that included it.)

Then came the South Dakota House Bill 1217.

The law reportedly prohibited transgender women and girls from participating in women’s and college sports in the state. It was a bill that Noem originally tweeted “excited“to sign. But, amid pressure from business interests, the possibility of losing NCAA college athletic events and the threat of further lawsuits, Noem vetoed” in style and form “, firing him at state headquarters and demanding changes as supporters of the bill said “gut” the legislation.

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

The reaction from conservatives, state lawmakers and the right-wing media has been swift. In a combative interview last week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused Noem of “giving in” to the NCAA.

“No, that’s not fair at all, Tucker,” she said. “In fact, you are completely wrong.”

The episode reveals what has become an increasingly strained relationship between the socially conservative base of the Republican Party and broader business interests, with politicians like Noem sometimes caught in the middle. It is also the latest salute in a nationwide Republican-led effort to bar transgender athletes from female and female sports, which has escalated dramatically since President Joe Biden took office. This effort has emerged as a consequence of old “bathroom bills” and a Republican party that has focused more on cultural issues that it says are part of a winning electoral formula.

For Noem, going against this new GOP litmus test – despite the signing of two executive decrees on Monday calling on state education officials to ensure that girls’ and women’s sports participation in the K-12 or college level be limited to those who can provide proof of their biological sex at birth, although they have no enforcement mechanism – could range from a brief hiccup to perhaps derailment any aspiration to a higher function.

“This is an unforced error,” a national Republican strategist told NBC News. “She had nothing to lose and everything to gain by signing this bill. And the fact that she and her staff fed her by opposing social media was bordering on incompetence. ‘makes no sense. She is now ceding ground to DeSantis. “

A South Dakota Republican, meanwhile, who believes Noem is likely to make a presidential offer expressed “surprise” at being subjected to such veto control.

“The leadership trait of gut strength that won over many conservatives during the Covid pandemic is also on display here,” said this person. “She sticks to her guns.”

Noem’s office, which declined to comment on NBC News, later called the backlash it had to deal with an example of an “uninformed cancellation culture.”

Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, a group that has been instrumental in promoting similar legislation in states across the country, said Noem’s rejection was akin to turning back the clock then Indiana Governor Mike Pence on the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act 2015. in the face of a similar pushback.

“She brought out a Mike Pence, and she caved in on it and it’s going to cost her dearly,” he said. “No social conservative and no one in the conservative media world will trust what she says anymore because of the number of laps she has made. It’s not just that she gave in, it’s that ‘she actively speaks false truths and distorts what really happened here. “

“ Trans children have therefore become the new culture war ”

South Dakota is just one of the largest Republicans seeking to ban transgender girls and women from participating in women’s and college sports. This month, three more GOP-led states passed similar bills. In Arkansas and Mississippi, those bills are slated to become law this summer, as such legislation has been introduced in more than 20 other states.

Yet this is not driven by a surge of transgender girls and women in these sports. In South Dakota, for example, the total number of transgender girls who have participated in K-12 women’s sports in recent years is extremely low. Nationally, The Associated Press reported that lawmakers who supported the bills have struggled to provide 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 “washrooms and locker rooms” to “the exclusion of trans youth from activities that affirm their identity ”as well as health care.

“And they’re kind of trying to create solutions to problems that aren’t there, whether it’s healthcare or after-school sports,” Jonelis said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out what they can attack and how they can push transgender people further out of public life.”

Instead, the issue drew attention following Biden’s moves to restore and expand transgender rights that had been curtailed under Trump, while conservative media amplified stories of participation by women and girls. transgender people in these sports.

Trump himself touched on the subject at length in his speech to CPAC last month, saying “women’s sport as we know it will die” as long as trans athletes are allowed to participate.

“I mean, it comes back to the question, if we can’t keep as a movement, the differences between men and women in the law, and the protections we fought for, for women, that we keep. -ourselves?” Schilling said.

When asked about the relatively small cases of transgender women and girls participating in women’s sports, he said, “Even if it happens to a girl and a girl loses a track race or a scholarship or something like that, it’s too much.”

Susan Williams, executive director of 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 fights of gay marriage. “.

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

In South Dakota, Williams said the key voices missing from the Bill 1217 debate are the ones he would affect the most. Her organization sought to meet with Noem so that she could hear from transgender people. So far, Williams has failed.

“The voices of those affected by this bill have not been heard and have never been heard 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 war front of conservative culture – an outcry over rapper Lil Nas X’s “Satan Shoes”.

“We tell our children that this type of product is not only correct, but 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 have to fight hard. And we have to fight intelligently. We have to win.”

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