All part of the plan?

The Capital Journal talks to South Dakota Democratic Party chairman Ben Nesselhuf about the lack of legislative primaries on the left side of the aisle — only three primaries for 105 possible races, compared to 27 Republican primaries.

(The Democratic number is historically low; the Republican number is historically high.)

Nesselhuf said that’s not a bug, it’s a feature:

"We were not focused on creating primaries," Nesselhuf said. "We tried to make sure we didn’t have primaries."

Republicans, Nesselhuf said, are divided. Democrats aren’t:

"We’re a unified party right now, unlike the Republican Party," Nesselhuf said. "We’re all on the same page."

Do you agree with Nesselhuf that a lack of primaries is helpful for the party? It means candidates can focus on attacking Republicans and not each other. But primaries can also rouse the base (see: the 2008 Democratic presidential primary) and can reflect a healthy interest in the party on behalf of strong candidates. You get primaries when lots of people want to run for office. Right now, Democrats don’t have a surplus in that area.

Nesselhuf’s implication is that when there were more than one candidate wanting to run for a seat, the party discouraged the candidate seen as weaker from running. If that’s what actually happened, is that a better way to select nominees than a vigorous campaign and primary election?

Working hard and winning

I’ve heard, anecdotally, that several of the incumbents who lost in Tuesday’s primary election didn’t put any work into campaigning — no door-to-door, no public events, no evenings spent calling people.

It’s not surprising that if one candidate tries to coast on name recognition and their opponent works really hard to introduce themselves to voters, the more famous incumbent could find themselves out of office.

But it’s also true that hard work doesn’t win all the time. Scrappy underdogs may be scrappy, but they’re still underdogs.

So here’s my request for information from you, readers. Can you tell me any South Dakota primary races where one candidate clearly worked harder than the other — but lost anyway?

Tags: primary

I blew the Varilek prediction

I thought Matt Varilek was going to win yesterday. But I thought it was going to be a lot closer.

In my prediction for our newsroom contest, I pegged Barth at 43 percent of the vote. I thought I might be going a little bit high, but I was worried about missing a Barth surge.

Barth actually got 28.07 percent of the vote. He lost all but one county, Dewey, where a grand total of 37 people voted, 20 of them for Barth. In Minnehaha County, where Barth has been in the news and on the ballot for years as a county commissioner, he lost almost exactly two-to-one.

Why did I think Barth would do better? It wasn’t just his viral video, though the conversation has to start there. More than 170,000 hits, and overwhelmingly positive reaction, couldn’t hurt. (What on earth would the margin have been had the election been held three weeks ago? 90-10?) More significant, I thought, were the opportunities that video gave Barth to get exposure on CNN and MSNBC, along with local media like the Argus Leader and KELO. That’s free media that helps get Barth’s message out to voters.

I had also heard, first- or second-hand, from a lot of Democratic voters who said they were switching from Varilek to Barth. Varilek’s hesitant position on same-sex marriage infuriated a lot of activists for whom same-sex marriage has become a core civil rights issue for which moderation is a sin. And in a lot of recent public appearances, Barth’s rhetorical boldness, his rough-hewn, give-em-hell attitude, had won over a converts. And converts tend to be zealous folks who try to convert others. Barth’s supporters were loud and vocal, and I thought they would grow rapidly.

They didn’t. I didn’t think Barth would win — or even come within a few points — simply because Varilek didn’t seem very concerned about losing, and I couldn’t believe he would raise that much money and that much support from politically savvy Democrats and not have a sense about whether he was in trouble from the Barth surge.

Turns out Varilek had even more reasons to be confident than I thought. The Barth surge turned out to be more smoke than fire.

But now Matt Varilek’s days as frontrunner are over. He’s turned into an underdog — and might soon wish for a little bit of Barth’s spunky, attention-grabbing fire.

The PACs of District 9 (updated)

District 9 is notable for two things: internment camps for shellfish-like aliens, and one of the more interesting primary races for South Dakota Legislature this year.

Incumbent Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford, is facing off a spirited challenge from Rep. Lora Hubbel, R-Sioux Falls, who decided to challenge Peters after being redistricted out of her old district.

The two candidates have thrown harsh words at each other, but most of the dirtiest work has been done by third-party groups, who can fill voters’ mailboxes with negative pamphlets without putting the name of the candidate they support on them (thus insulating those favored candidates from any backlash from voters upset at negative attacks).

(Note: this article has been updated to reflect new information, near the bottom.)

Let’s take a look at some of these attacks, and who’s making them.

Hubbel has slammed Peters for being “pro-abortion” and “anti-gun,” and anti-Peters postcards have taken a similar tack. Here’s five cards (some front-and-back of the same postcard) from the same group:

These are stamped, “Paid for by Conservatives United.”

Who is Conservatives United? They’ve got a page on Secretary of State Jason Gant’s new campaign finance system, though there’s not too much there.

Conservatives United is run by a Brian Wellhouse of Watertown. The political action committee hasn’t filed a pre-primary report (or it hasn’t been uploaded yet), so we can’t yet see who’s donated to Conservatives United or what they’ve spent their money on. Its mission statement is to “support conservatives in GOP primary elections.”

Another, slightly more transparent group has also sent out anti-Peters postcards:

Those postcards have a little more sophisticated design, but generally hit the same theme: Peters is an enemy on key conservative issues. This group, the Conservative Values PAC, focuses on health care rather than the abortion- and gun-focused cards Conservatives United sent out.

So who is Conservative Values PAC? It’s on the Secretary of State’s website, and it has a more notable name running it: former lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate Gordon Howie.

The stated mission of the PAC is “to support limited, responsible government and the principles of conservative fiscal & family values.”

The PAC lists a single $100 donation, below the threshold at which donors have to be disclosed, and a $100 donation to the Hubbel campaign. Presumably, the expenses for this postcard (and the money to raise it) happened after the reporting deadline for pre-primary campaign finance reports.

But Peters has an “ally” against this onslaught of postcards:

These postcards are paid for by a political action committee called “PAC’n Heat,” which evidences a sense of humor with its punny name.

So who is PAC’n Heat? To the Gant-machine!

The chair of the PAC is a certain Deborah Peters of Hartford, and lists its mission as “to elected responsible candidates.”

If you click through to PAC’n Heat’s pre-primary report, you can see it reported one donation — $1,000 from the Salt Lake City company Insure-Rite.

It also lists three other notable contributions: $421.41 from “Deb Peters for Senate repayment of cost of postcard,” $424.40 from “Steve Hickey for House repayment of cost of postcard,” and a $424.40 loan from “Bob Deelstra for House.”

Peters, obviously, is the incumbent senator in District 9 and the prime beneficiary of these attacks. Hickey and Deelstra are the incumbent House members from District 9.

Neither man is facing a primary challenge, so neither man has to file a pre-primary report with Gant’s office.

EDIT: Hickey writes to tell me that he and Deelstra didn’t have anything to do with the attack on Hubbel. The contributions from him and Deelstra reflect an earlier postcard the three incumbents sent out introducing them to voters, he said. He sent over an image of the mailer he said he and Deelstra helped pay for:

So while Hickey and Deelstra are definitely allied with and supporting Peters, this would suggest they weren’t involved in the attacks her PAC made on Hubbel.

I don’t know what the connection is between any of those people and Insure-Rite. Peters is a CPA, Hickey a pastor and Deelstra a “sales professional” for Northview Campers.

So that’s the postcard situation in District 9: Peters, under attack by third-party groups allied with her opponent Hubbel, forms her own group to punch back — with the support from other, current members of the Legislature.

What do you think about the postcard wars in District 9? Is one side being nastier or less truthful than the other?

Varilek gets some SDGOP love

Yesterday, I reported that the South Dakota Republican Party had launched a video criticizing Jeff Barth for some of his statements, vowing to not “let him get away with stuff.”

At the time they had nothing major to criticize Barth’s rival Matt Varilek about, snarking that was because Varilek didn’t talk about anything but the ‘95 Buick he’s been traveling around the state in.

Today, SDGOP executive director Tony Post finds something to bash in the Buick, sending out this press release:

The South Dakota Republican Party today asked U.S. Congressional candidate and long-time government worker Matt Varilek to come clean on his support for Barack Obama.

"It is widely known that Varilek drove around in his Buick with a Barack Obama bumper sticker prominently displayed on his bumper before he entered the Congressional race, but that same Obama sticker vanished when Varilek became a candidate," said GOP executive director Tony Post. "South Dakota voters deserve to know where Varilek stands," Post added.

Post called on both Vaikek and Jeff Barth to let South Dakotans know of they will be endorsing another four years of more debt and fewer jobs by voting for Obama in the fall.

The core of the attack is factually accurate: my Argus colleague Jon Ellis says he lives near Varilek and saw the Obama bumper sticker.

Will Varilek and Barth be voting for Obama in the fall? I presume so. Neither one is very critical of the Obama administration, defending his signature health care plan as a good idea that should be tweaked, not repealed or replaced. If I get anything more concrete I’ll post it here.

In the meantime, Varilek can bask in the love from his Republican colleagues. Being attacked, after all, often means you’ve made it.

That Varilek email

A few people have mentioned to me that they’re curious about the contents of that Matt Varilek letter to supporters that ticked off Jeff Barth by drawing some unfavorable contrasts between the two.

Barth responded to that email, in part, by hosting a press conference yesterday, which my colleague Jonathan Ellis reported on.

For those who aren’t on the Varilek email list, here it is:

Dear [voter],

In recent days, Matt and his opponent in the June 5th primary have held a number of debates around the state.  These debates have highlighted some important differences to keep in mind when you cast your ballot:

  • Matt is the only candidate in this race who has been willing to say the obvious from day one: we cannot afford to renew the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  Matt’s opponent in the primary says we should protect those tax breaks, and the millionaires and billionaires who benefit from them.  But that would make the deficit even worse, and bring more pressure to cut things that impact middle-class South Dakotans like Medicare for our seniors and Pell Grants for college students.  
  • Matt is the only candidate who has been willing to hold Kristi Noem accountable for her terrible record of participation in Ag Committee meetings.  South Dakotans of all political parties expect more from their member of Congress than speaking up at just one out of twenty Ag Committees.  But Matt’s opponent in the primary says he’s “not as troubled” about this.  We will only defeat Kristi Noem in the fall if we nominate someone willing to go toe-to-toe with her on issues like this one (as well as her misguided dust bill, which Matt’s primary opponent also supports).
  • Since this campaign began, Matt has traveled the state in his ‘95 Buick, going town to town, meeting with voters face to face, organizing public meetings, engaging volunteers, and making personal connections with the people who will decide this election.  In contrast, the Mitchell Daily Republic reports today that Matt’s opponent will rely on TV ads in the closing days of the campaign, hoping that can make up for a lack of in-state grassroots organization.  
  • As you know, Matt grew up in Yankton and Tabor, working hard to climb the economic ladder from his modest beginnings.  For most of the last eight years, Matt served the people of South Dakota, working on economic development projects and small business issues in every corner of the state, helping to make this a more prosperous place to live and raise a family.  

Don’t let Matt’s opponent fool you: that experience, and the support of the leaders that he worked with like Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, are not liabilities to be mocked.  They are strengths that he has worked for. With your help, he’ll put those strengths to use on behalf of the hard-working families of our state as our next Congressman.

In this final week, your help is more important than ever.  To join this grassroots effort, please click here, and help us get out the vote for Matt, and for our future, on June 5.  Thank you!


David Benson

Campaign Manager

Matt for SD

Jeff Barth, quote machine

Yesterday, I wrote about how the South Dakota Republican Party criticized Democratic House candidate Jeff Barth for saying the Republican health plan calls for people to be “healthy, wealthy or die quickly.”

Barth called me back later that day and said he was confused about what the SDGOP found so offensive about his remarks. I told him that I believed they thought it was over the line to accuse Republicans of wanting people to die.

"My original phrasing would probably be more like, ‘They want to kill millions of Americans,’" Barth replied. "I hope they get used to this milder and gentler Jeff Barth, because I can’t wait to debate Kristi Noem on this issue. If they want to keep people alive, they need to go on a different course."

And that, ladies and gentleman, is how you get your name in the paper on a daily basis.

The South Dakota Republican Party has launched a web video of congressional candidate Jeff Barth’s remarks at a debate last week, in which he said the GOP health plan “wants you to be healthy, wealthy or dying quickly.” Executive director Tony Post called those remarks offensive and asked Barth to apologize. Barth replied he “sure as hell” won’t apologize. Read the story at

Varilek plays the underdog

From December 2011, when he entered the race, through May 16, Matt Varilek raised $328,013 toward his congressional campaign.

From July 2011, when he entered the race, through May 16, Jeff Barth raised $44,855 — half of that from himself — toward his congressional campaign.

Varilek, in other words, has raised more than seven times Barth’s money.

Now, with one week to go until the primary, it’s Matt Varilek who’s playing the underdog.

In an email sent out to supporters just now, signed by Varilek’s campaign manager David Benson (emphasis in original), the campaign casts Barth as the man “relying” on TV ads:

Since this campaign began, Matt has traveled the state in his ‘95 Buick, going town to town, meeting with voters face to face, organizing public meetings, engaging volunteers, and making personal connections with the people who will decide this election. In contrast, the Mitchell Daily Republic reports today that Matt’s opponent will rely on TV ads in the closing days of the campaign, hoping that can make up for a lack of in-state grassroots organization.

Beyond Daugaard’s endorsements

Gov. Dennis Daugaard gave more than just public support to the five candidates he’s supported in Republican legislative primaries.

According to Daugaard’s senior advisor Tony Venhuizen, in addition to statements of support, the governor:

  • Wrote a letter to the editor in support of Rep. Val Rausch, R-Big Stone City, in his battle with Sen. Tim Begalka, R-Clear Lake
  • Attended a “meet and greet” event with Sen. Tom Nelson, R-Lead
  • Gave Rausch and Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford, $500 each from his campaign fund

That’s on top of providing those candidates with polling data.

The other candidates Daugaard endorsed are Sen. Bruce Rampelberg and former Rep. Mike Buckingham, both senate candidates from Rapid City.

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