Varilek, Barth make final pitches in primary raceRace for Democratic nomination heats up as race nears end.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Matt Varilek and Jeff Barth have one thing in common in addition to being Democrats. Both men predict they will win the Democratic nomination Tuesday for South Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House.
Barth, 60, and Varilek, 37, both of whom live in Sioux Falls, spent the final weekend before the primary election shaking hands, making speeches and asking voters for support. The winner will take on Rep. Kristi Noem, a first-term Republican, on Nov. 6.
The primary is open to both registered Democrats and independents.
Varilek said he has enjoyed campaigning and is encouraged by what he has heard.
“I feel great about the response we are getting by meeting people face-to-face, but we are certainly not going to give up,” he said. “We’re going to keep working hard all the way.”
“I think I’m going to win,” Barth said Thursday during a stop at The Daily Republic.
On Saturday, he spoke in Rapid City and Spearfish and then spent Sunday driving home to Sioux Falls on Highway 34, where he made several stops.
“I think for too long we Democrats have given up on the West River vote,” Barth said. “I want Democrats out there to know I value their votes. Do not be afraid: Come out and vote.”
The question is how many votes the winner will need to earn the nomination. It’s a light primary ballot, especially for Democrats, with no presidential, gubernatorial or Senate race to lure voters.
Varilek said he expects a small turnout. Barth feels 18,000 votes will win the primary.
“I think that’s right,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big turnout. A lot of people were discouraged by Matt Varilek’s position on gay marriage and will stay home. And if they come out, they will vote for me.”
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Varilek said he opposes gay marriage and Barth said he supports it.
It’s one of many differences between the candidates.
Varilek touts working his way through several colleges before spending nearly eight years employed by several U.S. senators. Barth is equally proud that he’s had little to do with Congress in his three decades as a telephone company technician and six years as a county commissioner.
Varilek grew up in a lower-income family in Yankton and worked hard to gain several college degrees, including a master’s degree from Cambridge University in England.
Barth was the Minneapolis-born son of a diplomat and spent his childhood in places such as Germany, Iceland and South Africa. He briefly attended college but never graduated, instead becoming a technician for Northwestern Bell, which eventually became Qwest. Barth said he will spend about $60,000 in the race, while Varilek has raised more than $300,000. “I don’t have D.C. money behind me, the patronage of Washington senators,” Barth said. Varilek has been endorsed by Sen. Tim Johnson and former Sens. Tom Daschle and George McGovern. He is not running TV ads in the closing days, while Barth has been doing so. Barth said he was told push polling -- a technique designed to alter voters' choice by casting aspersions on a candidate -- was being conducted in the final weekend of the race.
“Some folks are complaining to me about ‘Push Polling,’ ” he said in a tweet. “It is hard to push a guy my size ... can you be pushed?”
“We're not involved in that,” said David Benson, Varilek's campaign manager. “We’re not doing anything remotely close to that. Our goal is to talk about Matt Varilek’s positions and why he is the candidate to beat Kristi Noem in November.”
Barth, a two-term Minnehaha County commissioner, and Varilek, a former aide to both Johnson and Daschle, started campaigning last fall. Both made appearances before small crowds of Davison County Democrats in 2011, and have toured the state, speaking to voters and making their cases.
But for months, the race was off the radar for almost all South Dakotans.
The race caught fire in the final weeks, as the candidates staked out different positions on gay marriage and extending the so-called Bush tax cuts.
Varilek said he does not favor extending the tax cuts, which he feels unfairly benefit the wealthy.
Varilek said the difference over the tax issue is telling and has become the dominant issue at the end of the race.
“I don’t think we can afford to continue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans,” he said. “Jeff has said he agrees with Kristi on this one. I think people like the fact that I have a middle-class perspective, because that’s the life I’ve lived.”
Barth said he’s unsure if hiking taxes in a time of economic uncertainty is the right move.
“I’m just not ready to say today that seven or eight months from now is the right time to raise taxes,” he said. “I feel confident people will see where I am at with these issues. I’m not comfortable with predicting the economy eight months from now and saying now is the time to raise taxes.”
The two Democrats have both criticized Noem, saying she has not been diligent about attending or participating in congressional committee meetings. It was an issue raised by the state Democratic Party and Varilek was quick to embrace it and said his primary opponent was reluctant to do so.
Last week, Barth joined in, saying Noem’s attendance is an issue. He also raised anew the congresswoman’s poor traffic record, which was a point of contention in the 2010 election.
Noem, who does not have a primary opponent, fired back last week, saying she has attended committee meetings, and criticizing the two Democrats.
“It’s been getting a little wild here at the end. I know Kristi Noem is coming at me,” Barth said. “You know what the Mayans predicted? I’m working to prevent Noem-aggedon in the next election. It’s a word I just invented a week ago.”
There have also been comedic moments in the waning days of the campaign.
Barth drew attention from media across the country and the globe for an innovative, at-times humorous five-minute Internet video. It shows him walking down a country road, discussing his life, firing a rifle and mocking Noem as a mannequin.
On Friday, Republicans announced they had a new “scandal” — Varilek had removed an Obama bumper sticker from his 1995 Buick. They said it showed he was trying to distance himself from the president.
In a mocking reply, Varilek and Benson created a Twitter account from the car itself.
“I love my car,” Varilek said. “But there are more important issues in this campaign.”
Varilek said he feels voters appreciate his “constructive approach to politics” and willingness to work with people of all political beliefs. That’s a direct contrast to Noem’s “my way or the highway” style, he said.
Barth said his video got people’s attention, and now they realize he is the right choice for the party.
“Matt Varilek is not a leader. He may be at some point in the future,” he said. “I think the voters are starting to realize Jeff Barth is one of them, a South Dakotan, and should be their choice.”
Varilek was in northeast South Dakota Friday and Saturday, spent Sunday in Yankton and will campaign in Sioux Falls today. On Election Day, he said he will vote, encourage his supporters and attend a gathering at his election headquarters in Sioux Falls. Barth is planning a block party at his home Election Night, and has received permission from Sioux Falls to close off his street for the event. Barth said he will try to feed the masses with a six-pack of beer and a bag of chips. “If I can do that, it will be even more miraculous than winning the election,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.