Jun 14, 2012
Two weeks ago I said Jeff Barth's display of clever electoral chess showed he could beat Rep. Kristi Noem and serve intelligently as South Dakota's Congressman. One week ago, 72% of the Democrats and Independents who joined me at the primary said Matt Varilek could do that job better.
I bear those 21,759 voters no ill will and happily join them now in trying to get another 180,000 South Dakotans to vote for Varilek in November. To that end, as well as for general summertime political amusement, let's look at the most important things we can learn from the 2012 South Dakota primary:
Reporters can be as wrong as bloggers. Knowing my penchant for wishful thinking, and deliberately compensating for the fact that my blog comment section was nearly a pro-Barth echo chamber, I predicted Varilek would still win somewhere in the low 60s. Journalist David Montgomery thought 57% would be more like it. We were both surprised at Varilek's 72% win. Perhaps we both were hoping the voters would affirm our journalistic love of last-minute drama?
Endorsements don't hurt. Unlike what happened in the GOP state legislative races, endorsements from party leaders didn't dampen support for Varilek. Voters may not like party honchos telling them whom to pick for their local district's legislative seats, but at the national level, they grok that when three Senators say a guy's good for Congress, they may know whereof they speak.
Money matters.... Barth made a point of pride out of saying he wasn't a big money candidate. As of May, Varilek had out-fundraised Barth 15 to 1. But having no money in the bank didn't seem to win Barth a lot of support.
...because meeting voters matters. Barth missed the point that fundraising and networking go hand in hand. When Varilek was out fundraising, he was also getting name and face time with voters. The money some of them donated allowed Varilek to put even more miles on the Buick, criss-crossing the state to shake more hands and get more early buy-in from voters. If you want to win in South Dakota, you've got to travel South Dakota, and that means you need gas money.
National media doesn't matter. The brightest spot of the Barth campaign was his breakout YouTube video, which I maintain is a digital literary gem. It got him 150,000 views, five minutes on MSNBC, and a bump in donations. But it didn't push him over 30% in the primary.
Equality doesn't matter? Barth's other big break came mid-May when Varilek, unlike Barth, declined to support same-sex marriage. A number of Dem voters were downright mad at Varilek's error on this issue. That anger appeared to be unnoticeable in the primary vote... and alas, may be less noticeable in the November vote. (Dems, we need to talk.)
Dems still need a fire lit under them. With no meaningful statewide race, Republican primary turnout topped 25%. With a real Congressional race, Democrat primary turnout was less than 18%. For all of his superior campaigning, Varilek failed to inspire 88% of Democrats to come to the polls on a sunny June day and launch him into the big fight against Noem.
Varilek dominated Barth, using a big, traditional campaign machine to crush his chess-playing opponent. But if he wants to checkmate Noem, our Czech mate will need to bring a lot more pieces to the table.
Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School. A longtime country dweller, Cory is enjoying "urban" living with his family in Spearfish.