Sharpening rhetoric seen as sign of close House raceWith less than two months to go before the Nov. 6 election, the campaign between the two candidates for South Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House has taken a sharp, even bitter turn.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the first in a series of reports on South Dakota’s U.S. House race. The remaining stories in the series will examine individual issues and accusations that have arisen during the campaign.
It was a shared experience between two South Dakotans. During their Aug. 21 debate at the Dakotafest agricultural trade show in Mitchell, Rep. Kristi Noem and Matt Varilek smiled as they both said they had “picked rocks” on farms when they were growing up in rural parts of the state. It was a moment of connection, a time to show the candidates, both small-town natives just three years apart in age, were similar in many ways.
But since those peaceful recollections of actual rocks, the two congressional candidates and their supporters have spent a lot of time throwing political rocks at each other. With less than two months to go before the Nov. 6 election, the campaign between the two candidates for South Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House has taken a sharp, even bitter turn.
Noem, a freshman Republican from rural Castlewood, has labeled Varilek an “environmental extremist.” She said that while she was raising a family in South Dakota, he was studying in Europe, and later promoted economic theories that would harm the state and the nation.
Varilek is a Democrat who was born in Yankton and now lives in Sioux Falls. During his first run for office, he has continually called Noem a liar, and also has sought to label her a member of the tea party movement. He portrays himself as being in the mainstream of political thought and says Noem is on the far right extreme.
Mainly, the two candidates have battled over the stalled farm bill.
Noem, 40, said she is trying to get it passed, and hopes it is soon brought to a vote. She notes that she voted for it when it passed the House Agriculture Committee.
Varilek, 37, said as a junior member of the House GOP leadership, Noem should bear a chunk of the blame if it is not successfully moved through the House.
They also differ sharply on Medicare, with Noem saying she favors a reform plan to protect and preserve the program, while Varilek said he backs “traditional Medicare.” Both have said their opponent is on the wrong side of the issue.
Varilek and Noem each blame the other for distorting the record and twisting facts in the race.
“It’s indicative of the political games and what people will do for their own benefit and not for the greater benefit of South Dakota,” Noem said.
She said Varilek, a former staffer for Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, knows Washington politics and the intricate ways of government and is trying to manufacture things to make it appear she is not doing her job properly.
Varilek, unsurprisingly, disagrees.
“We have some major differences, and I think it’s appropriate we highlight those differences,” he said.
Varilek said his charges are “based on facts” while Noem is making unsubstantiated allegations.
“I think I have a responsibility to correct them,” he said. “It’s not clear leadership, which leads to confusion.”
Northern State University political science and philosophy professor Ken Blanchard said he has noticed the sharp tone of the campaign.
“It’s not quite clear how to interpret this,” Blanchard said. “It’s not too surprising on Varilek’s part. Obviously a challenger in a congressional race … the hardest thing is to let people know who you are. He’s got to break through, and one way to break through is to attack the incumbent. That’s not that unusual a strategy.”
But he said for Noem to respond, and in some ways cast the spotlight on Varilek, is unusual.
“Incumbents don’t like to debate the challenger,” Blanchard said. “They don’t want to do anything to focus the camera on that other person and make them seem a serious person. For Noem to spend time fighting back may suggest she finds this challenge more serious than it would usually be.”
South Dakota has been fertile ground for Republicans, especially in recent years. But since the state went to a single congressional district, Democrats have won 11 of 16 races for the seat and have held it for a combined 20 years, with Republicans being in the office for nine. It sat vacant for most of early 2004 after Rep. Bill Janklow resigned.
Blanchard said once South Dakota Democrats are in Congress, they usually stay for a while. The struggle for Varilek is to get there the first time.
Bob Burns, the retired head of the South Dakota State University Political Science Department, said the tone of the race is not a surprise.
“I had anticipated that it would be a pretty conflict-ridden campaign,” Burns said Friday. “I didn’t anticipate it would be a cream and peaches campaign.”
Nielson Brothers Polling, in Sioux Falls, released a poll in July stating Noem held a 1-point lead in the race. A fresh poll will be released soon, according to NBP President Paul Nielson.
Noem said she has not seen polls on the race, but said her campaign staff has kept an eye on them.
“They better,” she said with a laugh. “That’s their job.
“I think we’re in a good position,” she added.
Varilek said he is not aware of any new polling.
“However, the reaction of folks I met at the State Fair and lots of other campaign stops across the state tells me this is definitely a winnable race,” he said. “But whatever the polls say on any given day, I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to earn this victory and give South Dakotans the kind of leadership they deserve.”
Burns said if the NBP survey is correct, that may explain Noem’s campaign decisions to engage her challenger. Blanchard, meanwhile, doubts the early polling results.
“I’d be really surprised if this race is close,” Blanchard said. “I would be amazed. I would be surprised if Varilek is (as close as) 1 point behind. We’ll see.”
He said Varilek remains unknown to most South Dakotans, in his opinion. But Blanchard said a close race would cause Noem to battle hard to hold on to the seat, abandoning the usual tactics of an incumbent.
“If she thinks she is in trouble, she will fight,” he said.
Obama, tea party factors
While Varilek strives to link Noem to the tea party, she tries to connect him to Obama.
“I am in line with the president on a great many issues,” Varilek is quoted as saying on obamavarilek.com, one of two anti-Varilek websites set up by Republicans.
The Noem campaign and the South Dakota Republican Party have also linked him to the health care law known as Obamacare. The GOP has labeled it a massive tax increase that will harm businesses and cost jobs.
Varilek said he does plan to vote for Obama, but he wants to focus on the South Dakota House race.
“I don’t want to highlight the differences I have with him,” he said. “I want to highlight the differences I have with my opponent.”
At the State Fair, he quickly changed the subject when asked about how he agrees with Obama. It’s a touchy subject in a year when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is expected to breeze past Obama in South Dakota, the electoral votes of which almost always go to Republican presidential candidates.
Noem was not an early or enthusiastic supporter of Romney. While Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., endorsed Romney in 2011, campaigned for him and spoke at the GOP convention, Noem did not back any of the Republican candidates and did not attend the convention. She said she supports Romney for president, even though they differ on issues such as the production tax credit for the wind industry, with Noem being a strong proponent.
Burns, a former Brookings County Democratic chairman and a 1980 Democratic legislative candidate, said Varilek is trying to paint Noem as an extremist.
“Certainly what Mr. Varilek is attempting to do is connect her with the tea party obstructionists in Congress,” he said.
Blanchard, who writes conservative-leaning columns for the Aberdeen American News and South Dakota Magazine’s website, said he’s not surprised Noem has played coy about her ties to the tea party movement.
“Politics is often a dance,” he said. “The tea party is a powerful force in South Dakota.”
It connects with some voters but turns off others, the NSU professor said.
Noem said she does not feel the campaign has taken an unduly harsh tone.
“Everything we release and talk about, we back up with facts,” she said. “I intend to stick to the facts.”
Varilek said he knew it would not be an easy race, but he also feels he and Noem can be “civil” with each other while engaging in a vigorous debate over the issues.
“I understand that politics is a tough business, but I also think we should not make claims that are not supported by facts,” he said. “So I am happy to rebut false claims when they are made.”