During the past half-century something mildly odd has taken hold in South Dakota’s statewide elections.
Losers almost always refuse to run again against the candidates who beat them, no matter if the margin of defeat was relatively small, not even if previous victories were big.
That is why this fall U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican, isn’t facing the Democratic incumbent whom she beat just two years ago. Former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin decided she didn’t want a rematch of their 2010 battle.
Instead Matt Varilek is the Democrats’ 2012 nominee for South Dakota’s one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The challenge is whether Varilek, a first-time candidate, can overcome the 7,114 votes by which Noem won in 2010.
Varilek has tried hard to define Noem as someone who doesn’t work very hard. He has spotlighted her weak attendance at House committee meetings.
But negative advertising often cuts both ways. In criticizing her, Varilek has raised doubts about his own character.
Noem’s defense has been to cite 800 meetings she says she’s had with South Dakotans. Spread across her 22 months as a member of Congress, that’s about two meetings per business day.
Noem has worked to tie Varilek to President Barack Obama. She also detailed his writings and positions on climate change and his work for a brokerage firm that handled trading of carbon credits.
Varilek has tried hard to distance himself from both.
Varilek most recently worked as a staff member for then-U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle and for U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson. Economic development was one of his responsibilities for Johnson. Varilek hasn’t shown South Dakotans in what project he might have been involved.
Accomplishments haven’t been a big part of either candidate’s campaign.
Varilek portrays himself as a fighter for the middle class and the people who want to become middle class. He would raise taxes for the wealthy, while Noem wouldn’t.
Noem looks like a harder conservative since joining Congress. In debates, Varilek has tried to corner her with inconsistencies. Even when he seemed to put her in a rhetorical box, Noem stood her ground.
She has been through tests in life he hasn’t. As a young woman, she won the South Dakota Snow Queen pageant one year. She quit college to return to the family farm after her father unexpectedly died.
Most recently, she served four years in the state Legislature and has gone through four rounds of elections, including a difficult 2010 primary and a more-difficult 2010 general election. Since joining Congress, she achieved her bachelor’s degree through distance-education courses.
As a state legislator, Noem tried some big things after she got her boots beneath her.
She wasn’t a prime sponsor of any legislation in her freshman year, which isn’t unusual for any first-year lawmaker.
But in her second year, she sponsored a bill to set a minimum teacher salary of $30,000 and two bills dealing with property-tax assessments. Both pieces of assessment legislation became law.
Others in the House Republicans’ caucus thought highly enough of her first term that Noem was selected as their assistant leader for her second term.
In 2009, she sponsored six bills. One passed, while five were rejected at the first opportunity.
One would have automatically raised state fees retroactively by 2.5 percent for every year since they were put in place. Another would have allowed the governor to suspend any tax exemption.
Yet another would have required legislative approval of state-tribal compacts, including for Indian gambling casinos.
And another would have required electricity companies to accept electricity produced by customers and would have limited the fee that a utility could charge to transport the electricity.
The one that did pass, however, increased the state tourism tax to 1.5 percent. The additional one-half of 1 percent was to fund the State Arts Council as well as tourism promotion.
With three successful pieces of legislation to her credit, Noem declared her candidacy for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.
During the 2010 legislative session, as she campaigned for the nomination, she sponsored four bills. One passed, regarding wind easements and wind energy leases.
Noem won the Republican nomination with 42.1 percent of the vote in the three-way primary. Chris Nelson, the term-limited secretary of state, received 34.6 percent, while state Rep. Blake Curd, a first-term legislator, took 23.3 percent.
Curd and Noem essentially battled to a draw in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties. But Noem won Pennington County by a wide margin, and she received at least 40 percent or more of the votes in 37 counties.
Noem also won majorities in the most counties. She polled 50 percent or better in Clark, Codington, Custer, Deuel, Grant, Hamlin, Harding, Jackson, Jones, Kingsbury and Tripp. Nelson did in Aurora, Brule, Campbell, Hanson, Hughes, Jerauld, McPherson and Union. Curd didn’t break 50 percent in any county.
In the general-election campaign, Herseth Sandlin couldn’t get off dead center. What happened to her popularity remains one of the great mysteries of South Dakota politics.
After receiving 256,041 votes in 2008, about 40 percent of her support simply vanished. Herseth Sandlin polled just 146,589 votes in losing to Noem.
Noem couldn’t get to a true majority either. Her 153,703 votes won the race, but were only 48 percent of the ballots cast in their race.
Thomas Marking received 19,134 votes. His 6 percent was unusually high for a third-line candidate in a South Dakota congressional race.
Noem won in Butte, Campbell, Charles Mix, Codington, Custer, Davison, Douglas, Edmunds, Fall River, Faulk, Gregory, Haakon, Hamlin, Hand, Hanson, Harding, Hughes, Hutchinson, Hyde, Jackson, Jones, Lawrence, Lincoln, Lyman, McCook, McPherson, Meade, Pennington, Perkins, Potter, Stanley, Sully, Tripp, Turner, Union and Walworth.
Noem’s margin over Herseth Sandlin was about 8,000 votes in Pennington County and about 7,100 votes statewide.
Varilek comfortably won the Democratic nomination in June, defeating Minnehaha County Commission member Jeff Barth in a runaway 21,759 to 8,494.
Facing Noem is Varilek’s first big test. And he has one big number on his side: the 52 percent who didn’t vote for Noem in 2010. This time it’s just a two-candidate contest.