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?