South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem seemed to be on the fast track: a national profile, a good relationship with former President Donald Trump, and the favor of conservatives in her state and across the country. But a bill targeting transgender athletes—and the no-win politics that have engulfed the legislation—now suddenly threatens to sideline her ambitions.
House Bill 1217 in the South Dakota legislature would prohibit transgender women from participating in female sports. And while Noem first celebrated the measure’s passage in early March, the ramifications of such a law, and the subsequent changes Noem is now seeking, have drawn ire from conservative activists and right-wing media.
“I’m excited to sign this bill very soon,” a tweet from her official account stated on March 8.
But then she didn’t. And by March 11, Noem began backing away from the bill as business and sports interests in this basketball-mad state made it clear they were not happy with the legislation.
Both the Greater Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and the Sioux Falls Sports Authority expressed concerns with the measure. The NCAA withdrew events from North Carolina in 2017 after a similar law was passed, and threatened to do so in Idaho when it passed such a law in 2020.
As anti-transgender legislation sweeps through several state legislatures this year, athletes have also responded. More than 500 student athletes sent a letter to the NCAA on March 10 asking why it was “silent in the face of the hateful legislation in states that are slated to host championships, even though those states are close to passing anti-transgender legislation."
The next day, Noem said her office was “evaluating” the bill.
“I’ve heard from individuals, not businesses and not particularly from the NCAA,” Noem said at a press conference.
Things began to move fast. On March 11, Noem said she would issue a “style and form veto,” normally used to correct minor errors in legislative text. But instead of targeting drafting errors, she wanted two sections of the bill tossed out and two other parts revised. In this new version, transgender athletes could play college sports.
It wasn’t quite that Noem had a change of heart. Her position is still sure to offend liberals who see it as her going after transgender kids. It’s just that it’s now also sure to fire up conservatives too. They liked the original bill and think Noem is catering to the political left.
Part of her piss-off-both-sides strategy has been a media blitz to redefine the issue. On Monday, she held yet another press conference, this time in Sioux Falls, to announce she had formed a coalition to defend Title IX, the gender equity sports law passed by Congress in 1972.
Noem said she just wants to ensure girls and women have a chance to compete fairly in sports. Over the weekend, she created “Defend Title IX Now,” and said she was asking other states to join in her fight against transgender athletes.
Retired NFL players Jack Brewer and Herschel Walker appeared by her side via Zoom. LPGA legend Nancy Lopez provided a statement of support, and several young athletes—including some from Noem’s high school—appeared at the press event. The governor said she decided to try a different approach on the issue. She wanted to alter the bill instead of getting into a legal battle.
“The NCAA is a private association—that means they can do what they want to do,” Noem said. “If South Dakota passes a law that’s against their policy, they will likely take punitive action against us. That means they can pull their tournaments from the state of South Dakota, they could pull their home games, they could even prevent our athletes from playing in their league.”
Noem has used a private TV studio she had quietly built in Pierre in 2019 to make frequent appearances on Fox News. But on Monday, Fox star Tucker Carlson and Noem ended up in an on-air verbal wrestling match when Carlson said she was “caving” to the NCAA.
“No, that’s not right at all, Tucker. In fact, you’re wrong completely,” Noem said, saying she had fought for equal access to sports for years, including promoting rodeo events for both boys and girls.
She said she is convinced the state cannot win in court, and that’s why she wants the bill revised.
“Listen I’m not interested in a participation trophy. I’m not interested in picking a fight that we can’t win,” Noem said. “I am a problem-solver. I come to the table and I don’t want to have talking points. I’ve been bullied for the last year by liberals, Tucker.”
She continued that she wasn’t going to let anybody from the NCAA, from big business, or even conservatives on the right bully her. “I’m going to solve the problem,” she said, almost already congratulating herself.
The South Dakota Legislature returns to Pierre on Monday for “Veto Day.” It can pass Noem’s changes by a simple majority or override her veto with two-thirds votes in both chambers. Noem said if she is not happy with the outcome, she will “immediately” bring the legislature back for a special session.
“I’m still excited to sign the bill,” she said on Monday. “We saw some things that needed to be corrected that can be done with a style and form revision. The part we needed to fix were a trial lawyer’s dream.”
The bill’s sponsors and the House speaker all said Noem was making a mistake by meddling with the bill and interfering with the legislative process.
State Rep. Fred Deutsch, a chiropractor and one of the more conservative members of the Republican-dominated legislature, said the governor didn’t have her eyes on the ball.
“My take only: She got into this situation because it was a historic year with COVID, marijuana, money and more,” Deutsch told The Daily Beast. He added that her team should have gotten involved early with the bill, but didn't. “That led to her tweet that she looked forward to signing the bill even though she apparently hadn't yet read it,” he said.
Noem, a first-term Republican who served four terms in Congress, has toured the country since 2019, appearing at dinners and other events to curry favor with Republicans and influential conservatives. She caught the eye of former President Trump, hosting him for a July 3 fireworks show and political rally at Mount Rushmore, handing him a mini-Rushmore before the event that had added Trump’s face to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Trump recently listed her as a future GOP leader. And Noem has made no secret of her interests in that kind of higher profile, appearing at events with former Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski in what’s seen as preparation for a national run.
She rose to prominence on the right after refusing to impose strict coronavirus restrictions, like mask mandates or business closures, in her state. In October, as the state’s COVID death spiraled up, she insisted she had made the right choices.
“As you all might imagine, these last seven months have been quite lonely at times,” Noem said during a special legislative session. “But earlier this week, one very prominent national reporter sent me a note that said, 'Governor, if you hadn’t stood against lockdowns, we’d have no proof of just how useless they really have been.’”
It’s a position she has stuck with throughout the pandemic, despite clear evidence that South Dakota has been one of the worst states for coronavirus.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 27, Noem suggested there was a political calculation behind the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 570,000 Americans and more than 1,900 South Dakotans, the eighth highest death rate per capita of any state in the country.
“The question of why America needs conservatives can be answered by just mentioning one single year, and that year is 2020,” she said in a speech that drew cheers and calls for her to run for the White House. “Everybody knows that almost overnight we went from a roaring economy to a tragic, nationwide shutdown.”
Noem did urge schools to close and sports to stop in March 2020 as the pandemic spread across the state. When the Smithfield meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls was deemed a coronavirus hotspot, Noem pressured it to close for a cleaning and to install safety equipment.
But she welcomed thousands of bikers for the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in August and appeared at events across the state and nation, often on horseback and seldom with a mask.
She basked in the attention, landing a prominent speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention. That same night, Fox News aired a commercial promoting South Dakota. It featured bison, massive monuments, and Kristi Noem.
“South Dakota, the land of the free,” she said.
The ad wasn’t free, however. South Dakota spent $819,000 on it.
Noem’s national profile was rising and Republicans in many states invited her to attend events, campaign for their candidates and speak at rallies. She also made appearances with Trump and supported him during and after the election.
But that was all before the transgender bill veto.
The conservative website The Federalist, which dubbed Noem a “rockstar” as recently as January, has now become a hub for Noem criticism. Federalist writers have accused Noem of ruining her political “star power” and “walking into a political buzz saw” with the veto.
Townhall columnist Kurt Schlichter called the veto an “utterly insane unforced error” in a Wednesday column, claiming that he got “a weird vibe” from Noem after meeting her at a conservative conference. Schlichter compared Noem to former Alaska governor and failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“She is the governor of a small state we don’t think about much—hey, haven’t we been down this road before?” Schlicter wrote.
Noem has also been slammed on right-wing cable news networks. On March 23, One America News host Stephanie Hamill claimed Noem’s critics were saying she had “caved to the woke mob” by vetoing the bill.
Two conservative groups who back the bill, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Principles Project, sharply criticized Noem and suggested they would support a primary challenge.
“She was considered a shining star in the GOP with a bright future. No more,” Michael Farris of the Alliance Defending Freedom posted on Facebook. “We don’t need leaders who lack the courage to stand up to the corporate bullies who want to turn our country into an amoral wasteland filled with compliant consumers.”
This, of course, isn’t the first time Noem or her state have experienced political turmoil.
South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg has been charged with three misdemeanor counts for running over and killing a pedestrian on Sept. 12, and while Noem called on him to resign, the AG still hasn’t, and an impeachment effort in the legislature has stalled.
Noem has a vested interest in who is attorney general, since there are calls to investigate her use of state airplanes for political and personal reasons.
Additionally, Noem has been battling medical and recreational marijuana laws in the state, after South Dakota voters approved both last fall. She tried to block the start date, but those efforts have also collapsed in the legislature.
Noem herself has also drawn scrutiny for ordering a $492,000 fence be built around the governor’s residence. She refuses to release figures on security costs for state troopers traveling with her when she campaigned for Trump and Republicans last year, and for that private TV studio she built in Pierre.
And obviously her handling of the pandemic, once you get outside of conservative circles, is far less flattering.
But despite all the controversy, Noem is still the clear favorite to be re-elected governor. Even if her national profile has taken a hit among conservatives for trying to ensure that her state doesn’t lose business or NCAA sports, the reports of her political demise may be exaggerated. The last time a Democrat won a gubernatorial race was 1974, and the last time an elected governor was defeated for re-election was 1970.
Even Deutsch—the conservative state representative critical of Noem’s handling of the transgender bill—said he’ll stand by her next year.
“Yes, I voted for her and donated to her campaign in '18,” he said. “Will I again in '22? Yes, I will. We disagree on this issue, but big picture she's been an outstanding governor.”