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May 31, 2012
This winter I thought the Democratic U.S. House primary was done before the game had started. Matt Varilek seemed to have the nomination sewn up shortly after announcing his candidacy in December. He quickly lined up the endorsements of the godfathers of the South Dakota Democratic Party—Senator Tim Johnson, Tom Daschle and George McGovern. (Godsister Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has conspicuously not endorsed... but that's a whole ‘nother essay.)
Varilek also lined up $100K in campaign donations in his first month on the trail; his total now tops $300K. Jeff Barth entered the race last summer; as of two weeks ago, he'd drawn little more than $20K from supporters.
For much of the quiet primary season, we didn't hear much about real policy differences from the candidates. So it looked like we ideologues could default back to pragmatism: which candidate could muster the cash and clout to kill the million-dollar incumbent juggernaut in November? Simple: Varilek.
But then Barth started playing chess. On May 24, he released a five-minute web video. He walks through the woods at Great Bear Recreation Area, talks about his globe-trotting biography, and throws verbal and visual zingers at Congresswoman Noem and the D.C. establishment (and yes, that's a jibe at his primary opponent, too). Six days later, that video has nearly 158,000 views, more views than almost any other South Dakota YouTubery besides crazy thunderstorm clouds and guys shooting pheasants.
That one YouTube video grabbed Barth more press than any other campaign move either he or Varilek had made. It gave Barth a chance to capitalize on some buzz he'd gained the previous week by drawing daylight between himself and Varilek on same-sex marriage. In a May 15 interview with the Argus Leader, Barth said he'd support legislation to recognize same-sex marriages. Varilek said he disagrees with President Obama's recently evolved support for marriage equality. That distinction caused Varilek to lose the support of big Dem Steve Hildebrand and set many other Dems to rethinking their primary choice.
I'm not in Barth's head. But it seems Barth knew he couldn't beat an apparent party favorite in a fundraising arms race. He thus lay low, coasting as long as he could, during a time when no one seemed to be paying attention to the race anyway. He took advantage of his opponent's unforced error on same-sex marriage. Then, less than two weeks before the vote, he scored a media coup with one clever video.
To a lot of the South Dakota Dems I chat with (and even some Republicans), Barth looks like the underdog chess player who with two quick moves has changed the board. And beating the incumbent in the fall will call for some brilliant chess.
I haven't decided my primary vote yet. I'm waiting to see Varilek's move.
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.