Politics, viral videos and corn dogs

Jeff Barth would be proud.

The Democratic candidate for Congress gained a lot of attention — but not that many votes — with a compelling, bizarre and memorable campaign video that “went viral” this spring.

Now, the Democrat who defeated him in a landslide in the June primary, Matt Varilek, is using a video intended to attack him, made by the South Dakota Republican Party, as a weapon. Varilek aims to mock his opponent, Rep. Kristi Noem, for trying to use this against him. It too has “gone viral,” which despite its ominous sound is a very good thing indeed for videos.

The GOP video, which runs more than 2 minutes, paints Varilek as a guy who studied overseas, speaks at UN gatherings and — horrors! — drinks beer and eats corn dogs! Those last two caught people’s ear, and the video was posted by several liberal websites, who also pointed out that it seemed as if Noem and her backers were condemning Varilek for seeking a quality education.

As he noted in a stop at our office, he did attend school in Scotland and England, but in part on a Rotary scholarship. Varilek said it’s almost comical that he is being painted as an outsider when he was just a South Dakota guy trying to get a good education.

The video, which both Varilek and Noem are urging people to watch, is getting media attention in South Dakota and across the nation. The AP did a story on it Monday.

Not to be topped, Noem’s campaign just released a new Halloween-themed video that seeks to mock Varilek while also painting him as a tax-and-spend liberal.

“Matt Varilek’s entire campaign has been a trick on South Dakota families and a treat for Washington liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama,” said Tom Erickson, Noem’s campaign manager. “On the campaign trail, Matt Varilek repeats false attacks and wild exaggerations instead of talking about how he supports the Obama-Pelosi agenda that would tax small businesses and middle class families as well as rob Medicare to pay for ObamaCare.”

It’s all pretty silly, but it has caught some people’s ears and eyes. I still think the best, and funniest, one of the bunch is Barth’s, and despite it he finished a poor second in the Democratic Party June primary.

Maybe if he had added a corn dog or two …

Matt Varilek knew what he was saying

In the past two weeks or so, Matt Varilek had one main thing to say: He could defeat Kristi Noem.

In fact, when he talked politics, and he and I did several times, he didn’t want to talk much about Jeff Barth. Varilek was focused on the general election, on Noem, on winning South Dakota’s lone seat in Congress.

He would say he respected Barth and wasn’t looking past him and yadda yadda yadda … but then he would make another point about why he could defeat Noem.

On Election Night, all the media people like me who had given Barth a chance with his stance for gay marriage and his unique, weird, funny video, were proven wrong. This wasn’t a race.

Varilek won in a walk. He could move past Barth, and focus on his goal from the start: Taking on Kristi Noem.

He goes there as the party’s clear choice, with the backing of Johnson, Daschle and McGovern, and with his first race for office under his belt. He’s an underdog, but polls have shown Noem and other incumbents are vulnerable this year.

And in 2010, it was widely asserted that another South Dakota congresswoman was a big favorite for another term. Ask Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, private citizen, how that worked out.

As far as Barth, he’s still a Minnehaha County commissioner and his statewide name recognition just skyrocketed. Does he have another run in him this year — the Democrats need another PUC candidate — or in the future?

And he still made the funniest campaign video in SD history. SD Republicans liked it, and tried to pump up his chances with state and national media. They felt Barth was an easier guy to beat in the fall.

Instead, they get Varilek, who is dead serious about winning.

Varilek’s strong start

Matt Varilek is looking good in the opening weeks of the race for the 2012 Democratic nomination for South Dakota’s lone House seat.

Varilek says he has raised more than $100,000, collected the endorsement of his former boss, Sen. Tim Johnson (which is not a surprise) and is touring the state making appearances and friends.

The former economic development director to Johnson is making his first bid for elective office. He wants to take on first-term Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican from Castlewood.

Varilek’s odds for the nomination will grow if former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin stays out of the 2012 campaign. So far, SHS has made no effort to run, disbanding her political organization and making few public appearances.

In an e-mail exchange I had with her this week, she said she has been busy traveling and spending time with family while also battling “nasty colds.” That sounds like a young mother dealing with a 3-year-old son, not a veteran politician gearing up for a run at a return to Congress.

We will soon see. Herseth Sandlin told me she will make a “final” announcement soon.

It may be very good news for Matt Varilek, or it could mean he’s in for a tough run for the party’s nomination. And fellow candidate Jeff Barth has dropped his earlier pledge to get out of the race if SHS jumps back in.

Barth, a Minnehaha County commissioner, doesn’t have the money nor does he have the backing of the most powerful Democrat in the state. But he is a proven candidate, having won a pair of elections in South Dakota’s biggest county.

Varilek and Barth shared the spotlight in Tyndall Thursday night, where they met with voters at an “old-fashioned Christmas party” hosted by state Rep. Frank Kloucek. It was an opportunity for Barth to be at the same level as Varilek as they compete for a chance to run against Noem.

They will likely stage a lively two-man race this winter and spring, unless SHS decides she wants a rematch, which seems unlikely. But we will soon know a lot more.

A turtle’s progress

Jeff Barth says he got off to an early start in the 2012 congressional race for a good reason: He’s a turtle, not a rabbit.

We all remember how that famous race ended up, so Barth, a Democrat seeking the party’s nomination for the state’s sole seat in the U.S. House, is purposefully casting himself as the slow but steady competitor who wins the contest at the end.

Barth, 60, faces a steep hill to defeat Rep. Kristi Noem, the first-term Republican who has, in just a few short months, gone from being a young South Dakota legislator from the rural town of Castlewood to a member of the U.S. House leadership team. Noem, not yet 40, is a freshman liaison representative to the Republican House leadership.

Her name is also mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, which seems very unlikely. But with all her appearances on FOX, there’s no doubt, Kristi is a star.

Meanwhile, Barth, who jokes that he is a balding, stout man, may be a strong candidate. He’s a well-spoken, quick-witted, two-term Minnehaha County commissioner with liberal views on many issues and a fiery populist streak, judging from his appearance in Mitchell Tuesday, who keeps plodding along.

As he likes to say, no South Dakota Democrat who won in 2010 garnered as many votes. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who appears to be passing on 2012, and Scott Heidepriem, the landslide loser in the governor’s race, drew more votes but both lost.

Noem has raised piles of cash, for a South Dakota congressional candidate, while Barth said he has collected $20,000. He said if he is nominated in June, he can raise $1 million and compete with Noem, who raised and spent more than $2 million in 2012.

Can this turtle catch the rabbit?

The race is on for 2012

Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth is serving milk and cookies as he kicks off his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the state’s lone House seat.

We know Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., will be the Republican candidate and the odds-on favorite. The Democrats are starting the process to pick a candidate to take her on and are unsure if former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin will run for her old job in 2012.

Barth told me Monday there was no special meaning to the treat, saying he thought it was just a nice thing to do. It’s a far cry from the old days, when politicians and their supporters sipped drinks with a stronger kick.

He will tour the state this week and will be in Mitchell Wednesday to press the flesh during Corn Palace Festival week.

Barth is counting on his experience in office in the state’s most-populated county and his proven ability to win, including in 2010, not exactly a strong year for Democrats.

Here’s the Barth story, with a look at his life and career: http://www.mitchellrepublic.com/event/article/id/56126/

Meanwhile, Matt Varilek, a staffer for Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., is taking a long look at the race. He and his supporters are using a lot of new media tools to spread the word.

Varilek has yet to formally announce for the House. When I spoke with him Monday afternoon, he said he was strongly considering entering the race.

Later, he called back to say he had responded to the Facebook campaign to get him into the race. It has more than 500 “likes” and here’s a link: https://www.facebook.com/draftmatt

Varilek sure sounds like a candidate in this YouTube video he posted last night: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLHXtMHAMY4

Meanwhile, SHS, now a lawyer and lobbyist in D.C., is taking some time with family in Brookings. Will she run? Is a presidential election a good or bad year for a Democrat to run in South Dakota?

Would she serve ice cream and cake at her announcement? Will Varilek offer Rice Krispie bars? Stay tuned.