South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem has made herself a national icon among Republicans over the past year. Her awkward veto last week of a bill regarding transgender athletes and women’s sports, however, could undo her previous appeal.

Bills banning transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports have become a staple in GOP-controlled state legislatures this year. Twenty states are considering such legislation, and bills in Mississippi and Idaho have already become law (though a federal judge enjoined Idaho’s law). They are also popular with voters: A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 53 percent of registered voters approve of banning transgender athletes from competing in girls’ sports, including 74 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of independents. Even Democrats were split on the idea, with 40 percent supporting a ban and 42 percent opposing one. Signing such a bill should have been a political no-brainer for the ambitious Noem.

Instead, she sent the bill back to the legislature. Even worse from a political standpoint, she sent it back via a provision known as a “style and form veto,” which allows her to correct “errors in style or form” to proposed legislation that she could then sign. Her corrections went far beyond that, removing two of the bills’ four sections entirely and offering substantive revisions to the remaining two. That alone has left some supporters of the bill crying foul.

Noem’s backtracking on the bill, which she previously tweeted she was “excited to sign,” has torpedoed her standing with social conservatives. Terry Schilling, president of the socially conservative American Principles Project, called her veto a “failure in leadership” and “caving to the left.” The Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that provides legal defense for social and religious conservatives, said her proposed alternative was “a hollow substitute” that took “the legal teeth” out of the bill. Other conservatives have voiced their strong anger to her decision in print and on social media.

Her attempts at damage control have thus far not worked. Noem announced her own effort to defend women’s sports at a news conference on Monday. She also appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program Monday night and faced withering questioning from the populist host. Neither effort seems to have turned her image around, and her statement that the original bill she vetoed would have only established a “participation trophy,” as she argued it would only get caught up in court, is sure to inflame those she has already angered.

Noem’s political problems show a massive failure to read the political room. She has risen to prominence by courting the party’s hard core — those who tell pollsters they are “very conservative.” These are the people who are active on Twitter, attend CPAC and were most opposed to lockdowns and mask requirements during the pandemic. She cultivated these people by appearing to be a staunch defender of those values even when under intense pressure from the media. That persona — someone who fights for what’s right regardless of the odds against them — is exactly what the GOP base is looking for.

The trouble is that many of these voters are also deeply religious and care even more about protecting religious liberty and traditional values than they do about restricting government interference in personal decisions. This has been clear for years as Republican presidential candidates who stress social conservatism and religious themes regularly do much better than those who stress liberty and small government in states with large numbers of “very conservative” voters. A recent EPPC/YouGov poll of Trump voters, which I help draft, confirms this. Fifty-five percent of very conservative Trump backers are also evangelical Christians; 60 percent of very conservative voters and 68 percent of evangelicals said that their religion was extremely important to their identity. Both sets of voters placed a higher priority on protecting religious liberty than they did on traditional conservative values such as keeping taxes low or cutting government spending. Noem’s veto raises a big question for these voters, for whom belief in biologically based genders are a matter of religious faith: Does she really share their values?

The governor is now in a political quandary. She could regain these voters’ trust by dropping her objections during the next legislative session that is scheduled for January. She suggested in her interview with Carlson that she could call the legislature back into special session to address this matter. If she does that, though, she then looks like she’s caved to social conservative pressure, which will anger the business groups she’s close to that oppose the original bill. Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

Noem’s meteoric national rise has spawned much doubt about whether she has the chops to navigate the difficult issues and media glare. How she recovers from this unnecessary self-inflicted wound will determine if the doubters are right.

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