One of the big MAGA heroes of the COVID-19 era was South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, who for many months more or less ignored the pandemic. Then, when her state’s caseload rose catastrophically after the Sturgis biker rally she avidly promoted, Noem kept arguing that COVID-19 didn’t justify business closures or mandatory public-health steps like mask-wearing and social distancing.
More generally, Noem was very Trump-y, welcoming the 45th president to South Dakota for the July 4th fireworks commemoration he had chosen and presenting him with a bust of Mount Rushmore with his face added to the presidential edifice. It’s precisely the sort of sycophancy Trump loves, and soon in MAGA circles talk emerged of Noem succeeding him as the next Republican presidential nominee or replacing Mike Pence as his running mate if he attempts a comeback. Her appearance at CPAC in February was a lib-owning triumph, as Politico reported:
Noem is staking herself firmly to the staunch pro-Trump lane among potential 2024 GOP contenders, many of whom have spoken at CPAC. She is meeting with donors in March at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, a fundraiser for her reelection bid and the first fundraising event of this cycle hosted by Donald Trump Jr.
But then Noem suddenly stumbled in her path along the far-right side of the political highway. After saying she was “excited” to sign a bill banning the participation of transgender girls and women in female sports leagues — a favorite right-wing cause this year — she changed her mind, issuing a “style and form” veto that allowed her to rewrite the legislation to exclude college sports and change some of the enforcement provisions. She was immediately accused of caving to pressure from the NCAA, which opposes such bans under its inclusion policies, and Amazon, which has its own LGBTQ policies and had a major new facility planned for South Dakota. As Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen noted, it then got worse for Noem:
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.
At this point Noem is flailing around and trying to change the subject to a broader defense of women’s sports as MAGA-world pundits pillory her as a sellout. Being generally transphobic is no longer enough. Her communications director (the excellently named Ian Fury) is lashing out at the governor’s critics with a tortured, defensive effort to identify with right-wing culture warriors even as he accuses them of hypocrisy, as the Washington Examiner reports:
Unfortunately, conservatives have been sold down the river by politicians all too many times. And the immediate assumption was that this was just more of the same. But why would the Governor who stood strong during COVID cave on such a fundamental issue? Answer: she wouldn’t, and she didn’t. If conservative media would take 5 seconds to read past the knee-jerk headlines and actually understand Governor Noem’s position, they’d come to a very different realization.
That dog won’t hunt, Ian. The pol who was so recently a heroine for her defiance of all that public-health nonsense is now being denounced by Terry Schilling, the cultural right commissar who heads the American Principles Project: “If Noem thinks this gambit will save her political career, she is sadly mistaken.” It will take many more trips to Mar-a-Lago to regain her MAGA mojo.