Drought sparks interest in race for US HouseVoters engaged in campaign ahead of Labor Day as farm bill languishes on Capitol Hill.
By: Denise Ross, The Daily Republic
The drought that has sucked so much life out of the American landscape this summer seems to have pumped life into South Dakota’s U.S. House race.
After the Republican-led House dismissed members for the annual August recess without passing a farm bill, voter interest in the issue ramped up, said Don Simmons, dean of the College of Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.
“Everywhere you go, somebody’s talking about it. At lunch counters, at dinner tables, the farm bill is a topic of discussion,” Simmons said. “It’s so much a part of our economy. Voters are very attuned to what’s happening.”
The issue has captured the attention of rank-and-file voters weeks before the traditional Labor Day start of average folks paying attention to politicians.
The farm bill is likely to dominate the first debate of South Dakota’s 2012 election cycle between Republican incumbent Rep. Kristi Noem and her Democratic challenger Matt Varilek, at 2 p.m. today at Mitchell’s annual Dakotafest agriculture expo. The debate follows a Nielson Brothers poll released earlier this month that showed Noem holding a single-point lead over Varilek.
The current farm bill, passed five years ago, is set to expire at the end of September, and the U.S. Senate passed its version of a new bill in July. In the House, spending-hawk Republicans pared back the food stamp program to a point where many urban Democrats withdrew their support. The loss of those votes combined with some Republicans who have never liked or voted for America’s agriculture policy left the farm bill without enough votes to pass.
Despite pleading from farm-state members, including South Dakota’s Noem, House leaders have refused to schedule a floor vote for the farm bill. Meanwhile, America’s worst drought since 1936 has continued to intensify and spread, and farmers and ranchers are watching action on the farm bill as closely as they are monitoring any forecast for rain.
Those tough facts left Noem facing an August recess with perhaps the worst hand dealt to any first-term congressional incumbent in modern South Dakota memory. Despite that, the Castlewood native is keeping her chin up and using the drought to make her case for why the House should vote on the farm bill.
“The drought has brought out the fact that we really need these programs,” Noem said. “In South Dakota, we recognize the importance of the farm bill. It’s hard for us to imagine that people wouldn’t support it. ... We have got to get the votes rounded up.”
Her opponent agrees the programs are needed but argues that a “dysfunctional Congress” has put those programs in real danger, as even a one-year extension of the existing farm bill lost steam in the House and saw no vote.
“We are seeing that dysfunction impact us in a very concrete way,” Varilek said. “We should not leave important work like this to the last minute and hope to pull a rabbit out of the hat. This is an example of why we need a constructive member of Congress.”
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., was Varilek’s boss until he hit the campaign trail full-time, and Johnson has lobbed a series of acerbic criticisms at House Republicans for their handling of the farm bill.
When the House left town Aug. 2 without passing a farm bill, Johnson issued a statement that read in part: “The House should be embarrassed for failing America’s agriculture producers. The House has repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot pass a farm bill. It staggers the imagination for House leaders to claim they have taken action by passing a drought assistance bill that cuts conservation programs meant to mitigate the effects of the drought.”
While Varilek continues to hammer what he has described as Noem’s spotty attendance record at House Agriculture meetings — he claims she missed 16 of 20 meetings — Noem can tout livestock disaster assistance. It was the one thing the House did pass before adjourning, and it arose from a bill Noem introduced in April.
The disaster assistance renews the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Livestock Forage Disaster Program and other programs for honeybees, farm-raised fish and trees for the current year after those programs had lapsed at the end of 2011.
And Noem continues to defend the cuts made to the food stamp program by the House Agriculture Committee, frequently mentioning the attempt to prevent lottery winners from collecting benefits and a provision that would stop rewarding states for signing up more recipients.
“That’s common sense and fiscally responsible,” she said.
Varilek also has used the farm bill to tie Noem to the tea party, hoping voters will blame that group for the dysfunction on Capitol Hill.
“The Tea Party in particular is very unwilling to work with others to find common ground and solutions,” Varilek said. “Kristi is the elected leader of the tea party freshmen.”
While Noem was elected to represent the 60 GOP freshmen to House leaders, she has declined to join the House tea party caucus and avoids anything but neutral statements about the group.
“The tea party is a grassroots organization at the local level,” Noem said, saying a member of Congress couldn’t be elected to lead such a movement.
And while media outlets dubbed Noem a “tea party darling” and “tea party princess” during the 2010 campaign, she very nearly faced a primary challenge from South Dakota tea party member Stephanie Strong this year. Strong complained that Noem had voted to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
Problems with Strong’s petitions kept her off the ballot, and Noem averted what could have been a challenge from her right.
Nonetheless, DWU’s Simmons said Noem’s leadership role could leave her vulnerable at the ballot box.
“Very early, she took on a leadership role in what has often been called the tea party freshman class in Congress,” he said. “Historically in South Dakota, the people who took on those kind of roles and a mouthpiece for either the Democrat or Republican party or factions of those parties, that historically has not boded well for them in elections.”
Noem said she will take on the issues and let the voters decide the campaign. “I’m willing to deal with tough problems. If voters choose to support me, that will mean the world to me,” she said.