SD House candidates stress different backgroundsNoem, Varilek seek to claim title as true South Dakotan in race.
By: Chet Brokaw, The Associated Press
PIERRE — Republican Rep. Kristi Noem and Democratic challenger Matt Varilek seem to be fighting for more than South Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat. They’re seeking to outdo each other in a battle to claim the title as the true South Dakotan in the race.
Noem tells voters she’s one of them, having lived her entire life in South Dakota, working on the family farm and running small businesses until she was elected to Congress two years ago. Her take on Varilek? Those two degrees from British universities proves he’s not one of us.
Varilek argues that he understands middle-class South Dakotans because he grew up in a low-income household, worked his way through college flipping burgers and toiling on farms, and learned much while working for several U.S. senators. He has hammered Noem for missing many House committee meetings and failing to get a farm bill passed.
On Tuesday, voters will decide which candidate’s background will best represent their needs in Washington, D.C., in a race that has grown increasingly competitive in recent weeks.
Noem enjoys an advantage as a Republican in a state where registered GOP voters far outnumber Democrats, and she has raised about three times as much campaign money as Varilek has. But Varilek has fought back with campaign ads that some say are working to undermine Noem’s footing.
Bob Burns, a retired political science professor at South Dakota State University, said a Varilek win would be an upset — “it’s an uphill battle to win a statewide race as a Democrat in South Dakota in modern times,” he said — but the race could be close because Varilek has run a good campaign that has put Noem on the defensive.
In that battle, Noem and Varilek have spent a lot of time arguing about whose background best qualifies them to help decide what direction the nation takes on taxes, Medicare and farm policy.
Noem cut short her college career to return to her family’s farm and ranch after her father died in 1994, but finally graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree in political science from South Dakota State University. She still lives on part of the family ranch near Castlewood with her husband and three children, and over the years also operated a hunting lodge and restaurant before being elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives for two terms in 2007-2010, serving as assistant leader of the Republican majority for the last two years.
Noem drew national attention in the Republican surge of 2010, when she defeated Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a rising star in the Democratic Party at the time.
“My experiences running businesses and raising my family here in the state have told me that the people need a representative in Washington, D.C., that knows how they feel in their everyday life,” Noem told The Associated Press.
Varilek grew up in Tabor and Yankton before getting a bachelor’s degree from Carleton College in Minnesota and master’s degrees in economic development from Scotland’s University of Glasgow in 1999 and Cambridge University in England in 2002. He worked as an analyst for an energy commodities brokerage and later worked briefly for Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota before joining Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson’s staff in 2005.
These are credentials the state GOP attacked in an anti-Varilek campaign video that went viral — largely because some viewed it as strangely anti-education and, in fact, a better ad for Varilek than for Noem.
Living in Sioux Falls with his wife and two young daughters, Varilek was Johnson’s economic development director from 2007 until he entered the House race in 2011.
“I have had to work hard my whole life like most South Dakotans have. I commit to the people of South Dakota that I will work my tail off for them in the U.S. Congress,” Varilek told The Associated Press.
Varilek frequently criticized Noem for missing many meetings of the House Agriculture Committee and other panels.
“South Dakotans of all political backgrounds understand you’ve got to show up to earn your salary. She hasn’t been showing up,” Varilek said.
Noem countered that she serves on many committees that often meet at the same time. She said she’s had 800 meetings with constituents and has a 99 percent voting record in committees.
“I wake up every day and decide which committee I need to go to that is in the best interests of South Dakota,” she told the AP.
The Republican congresswoman accused Varilek of following President Barack Obama on taxes, Medicare and other issues.
Noem opposes raising tax rates, particularly in a shaky economy, but supports closing loopholes and exemptions to raise more federal revenue. Varilek favors raising taxes on families earning more than $250,000, a move he said would cut the deficit while protecting key programs.
Varilek said Noem’s refusal to raise taxes on millionaires shows she “favors the wealthiest individuals and corporations above all else.”
Noem said Varilek’s plan would tax many small business owners into laying off employees.
“That’s devastating for us and our way of life,” Noem said.
On Medicare, Varilek wants to preserve traditional health plan for retired people while curbing costs through efficiencies. Noem supports preserving existing Medicare for those 55 and older, while giving younger people the option of keeping traditional Medicare or getting private insurance subsidized by the government.
Meanwhile, Varilek has questioned Noem’s effectiveness because she failed to get the farm through the House. Noem countered that she did everything she could to get the bill passed before Congress recessed for the election, but a vote had to be delayed because it would have failed.
Noem said Congress cut spending in the past two years and she helped gain House passage of disaster programs for livestock producers, got additional money to help fight the infestation of mountain pine beetles destroying trees in the Black Hills and helped block cuts to Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota.
“We’ve got some small successes, but our work is not done,” Noem said.
Varilek said Congress is in a stalemate on key issues because Republicans have refused to compromise.
“I believe we need members of Congress willing to work together to find common ground,” he said.