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Varilek Edges Barth in Meade Dems Straw Poll; Both Can Improve

South Dakota Dems have their first straw poll numbers in the Democratic primary race for the privilege of sending Congresswoman Kristi Noem back to the farm in November. Jeff Barth and Matt Varilek made their pitches to fifty West River Democrats Friday night at a Meade County Democrats fundraiser in Sturgis. Meade County Dems held a straw poll at the event; they report today that Matt Varilek won 28 votes.

I had the pleasure of attending this event, hearing the speeches, and gobbling up really good pork sandwiches and potato salad (not enough room on my plate for the baked beans, darn it!). Having listened to all the speeches, I can tell you that without a doubt, the best campaign speech was made by...

Ben Nesselhuf, South Dakota Democratic Party chair, speaks at Meade County Dems fundraiser, Sturgis, South Dakota, February 10, 2012
Not trying to buffalo anyone: SDDP chair Ben Nesselhuf lays out the GOP's betrayal of South Dakota values.

...Ben Nesselhuf. The state Democratic Party chair (whose good graces I'm desperate to win back, right, DWC?) took the floor (not the stage, not the mic, just the floor) to make a passionate speech about how Rep. Kristi Noem and Gov. Dennis Daugaard have spent their first year-plus in office betraying the young, the old, the middle class... well, heck, pretty much anyone not making millions of dollars and filling their campaign coffers. Nesselhuf noted with vigorous glee the Republicans' bogus celebration of edging SD Dems in fundraising by just 18%. He pointed out one blogger's analysis that the Dems actually raised more money per registered party voter in South Dakota than the Republicans.

The speech itself showed Chairman Nesselhuf's passion for the job. He understands how to spread the Democratic gospel and build excitement among the base. He demonstrated a similar enthusiasm in his Statehouse interview on SDPB Tuesday (extended video here!), in which he sounds like a man who loves his job and his state, while SDGOP exec Tony Post comes across as a cat eating broccoli in the shower and wishing he were back in his home state of Minnesota.

Oh yeah, we were talking about the actual candidates. See the problem? I came away more impressed with the party chairman's performance than with that of either man on the June ballot. I don't blame Nesselhuf for kicking butt; I turn to Varilek and Barth and say, kick more butt!

Jeff Barth speaks at Easyriders Saloon, Sturgis, South Dakota, Feb. 10, 2012
Jeff Barth speaks at Meade County Dems fundraiser, 2012.02.10

Now actually, on that count, Barth worked harder than Varilek in his Friday night speech. He worked from a substantial script and talked about a number of issues. In his best point, he noted that a politician's job, a leader's job, is to make the case for difficult choices, even when the public may not want to make those choices. For instance, on taxes (get out your knives, Republicans), he said no one wants higher taxes, but that sometimes we've got to have them to pay the bills and balance the government's books. He emphasized that he was the only one of five Minnehaha County commissioners last year to vote for a property tax opt-out that would have increased revenues and mitigated salary cuts for county workers. He said that signing pledges to never raise taxes is bad leadership.

Barth very deliberately repeated one line throughout his speech: "Congress is broken." Barth sees the evil wrought by treating corporations as people and letting their money rule. He brands himself as an indepedent thinker, a dad whose kids are off on their own and who doesn't really have to worry about what happens to himself now.

In presentation, Barth came across as angry, and rightly so. There is a great deal in Kristi Noem's pretty paucity of practical policy that warrants anger. I want a candidate who feels and expresses that anger. At the same time, in Friday night's speech, Barth's anger came out abruptly and unevenly. He didn't overturn any tables or tear down the curtains. He just got hot in places where the emotion didn't seem to build and flow naturally. Control that emotion, Jeff. Use it, let it add to the speech, but always control it.

Barth also seemed nervous. Occasionally his hands shook as he held his script. You and I would likely be nervous, too, if we were running for such an important job, hoping to fix things that are so deeply wrong with the country we love. Still, it's a job interview: you can't let them see you sweat. And heck, this is a friendly audience of eager Dems giving you free food. If there's any audience in front of which a Democrat can relax, it's a county Dems fundraiser. Relax, enjoy the spotlight, and have fun throwing us minority blue-staters our all-too-rare red meat.

Matt Varilek speaks at Easyriders Saloon, Sturgis, South Dakota
Matt Varilek speaks at Meade County Dems fundraiser, 2012.02.10

Matt Varilek seemed perfectly relaxed, perhaps too relaxed. With his big early edge in fundraising and big-name endorsements, maybe Varilek already has a sense that he is the frontrunner. (Then again, he's busting his chops with his statewide tour in the mighty Buick; that effort sure doesn't shout complacency.)

Like Barth, Varilek said that 2012 is a great year to run, that we Dems have a great chance of sending Kristi Noem home. But where I hear that message and want someone to shout, "Yeah! Let's go fight win!", Varilek showed neither Barth's anger nor Nesselhuf's crowd-rousing enthusiasm for fighting that battle. That's not to say Varilek sounded unenthusiastic; he clearly wants the job. On Friday night, Varilek just sounded cool, calm, collected, and didn't push himself or his issues as hard as Barth did.

Varilek spent less time talking about issues and more time talking about his campaign itself. He mentioned his YouTube campaign announcement, his fundraising, his endorsements, his tour. That focus could have some logic. He was doing the same thing Nesselhuf was doing, telling the party faithful, "We all agree on principles and the goal of beating Kristi Noem; let me remind you that I can muster the cash and campaign organization to achieve that goal. Now write some checks!" The party cognoscenti will dig that.

But Nesselhuf and Varilek are doing two different jobs. The broader primary electorate—which includes over 86,000 Independents, since we Dems are nice inclusive people and the Republicans aren't—doesn't groove to meta-campaigning. They want to hear less campaigning about campaigning and more straight-up campaigning. Tell us more about why Kristi Noem is wrong on the issues. Tell us more about why you are right. Use this valuable time to educate us not about your campaign organization but about the big issues the state and the nation face and that Noem is not facing. Make that case hard, and the money, endorsements, signatures, and votes will flow even faster.

I will grant that I am a very small and perhaps strange subset of the Barth-Varilek constituency. I want a fighter. The party needs a fighter. Rep. Kristi Noem will pour her big corporate money into a deadly combination of her aw-shucks farm-girl image (I guarantee, her first ad will show her on a horse) and no-holds-barred destruction of her opponent as a socialist, Obama-loving liberal. That assault will bury a nice guy. To win, Dems need a candidate who can respond with a Nesselhufian and (dare I say it?) Janklovian combo of overwhelming facts, figures, and rhetorical force to tear down the lies and show that Kristi Noem really has no clothes (stand back for the Google juice on that line).

Jeff Barth showed a little more of that necessary fight and fire in his eyes than Matt Varilek did on Friday night. But the primary is just beginning. There's plenty of time for both men to demonstrate that they can rise to the challenge of overthrowing the coy Tea Party princess.

Campaign signs for Matt Varilek and Jeff BarthSignage Notes: Barth gets the edge here. I like the South Dakota outline framing Varilek's logo, but Barth's sign scores better on the 50-500 criterion: How well can folks read it at 50 miles per hour from 500 feet away? Varilek in his speech Friday emphasized that some people might consider his name unusual (funny: having studied and taught foreign languages, including Polish and Russian, that never occurred to me... but then look at my last name). If the name is tricky, that's all the more reason to blow it up as big as you can on the poster to make sure people get it right. (I now yield the floor in the comment section to Bill Fleming for a real graphic designer's opinion.)

Also worth noting: the metaphorical similarity between the fonts and their candidates. Varilek's font is slender, with maybe just a hint of youthful retro. Barth's name is in big stout letters that fill the space. Did you guys plan that?

Venue Notes: Easyriders Saloon in Sturgis put on a good spread. The stage and small concert hall are a great space for meetings like Friday's event. If it weren't for the crass objectification of women on the walls and other vulgarity, it would be a great spot for more Democratic events. But I guess unless you're meeting at the Wesleyan Church, there's no getting away from that in Sturgis.


  1. mike 2012.02.12

    Nesselfhuf is reminding me of Lucas Lentsch from a last year. Lots of energy and party mantra. He's looking more and more like a potential candidate down the road than I would have originally thought.

  2. supersweet 2012.02.12

    Corey, you are in West River now. Appreciate the culture of the Easyrider and other great venues.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.12

    I enjoy liberty and non-conformity. I back away from objectification of women and (usually, though not consistently, especially when I use hammers) vulgarity.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.12

    Meade Dems didn't publish that number; all they said was 50 folks in attendance, 28 votes for Varilek. I can confirm that 50 is a reasonable estimate of the audience members available to vote; I thus would conclude that Barth's vote tally was 22 or less.

  5. Roger Elgersma 2012.02.13

    mike, ben always could give a good speach. maybe he just looks older now. can't write caps at the moment, no disrepect intended. ben's speaches always had issues and content with good arguements, more than just the we have to give money and work hard speach.

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