Self-described underdog relishes campaign after years as a staffer
Argus Leader Media
By David Montgomery
October 21, 2012
Bill Janklow was a four-term governor. Stephanie Herseth was the scion of a prominent political family. Kristi Noem was a leader in the state Legislature.
So who’s Matt Varilek?
He’s hoping the answer, as it was for Janklow, Herseth and Noem, is South Dakota’s next member of Congress.
But to reach that goal, Varilek will have to persuade voters to turn against Noem, the person they elected only two years ago — and a candidate who this time around seems to have every advantage.
A long shot?
Even Varilek admits he’s an underdog.
“I just don’t think many people expected that we could make it a competitive race. Working every day, in the face of those expectations, was a challenge,” Varilek said. “I felt confident that if I got to talk to enough people about my priorities that the reaction would be good and, slowly, perceptions would change.”
Whether perceptions will change is the question. Varilek has continued to trail Noem in fundraising, but has collected enough money to run television ads for most of six weeks. Data are scarce; no national firms have released any polls of the race, but one local firm suggests Noem leads by fewer than 10 points.
Could Varilek actually win? Analysts are skeptical, but they don’t rule it out.
“In a state like South Dakota, Democrats are starting off in a difficult political position,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “Any Democrat in the state running this year is going to have to get a whole bunch of Romney voters.”
Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University, said Varilek has done better than might have been expected.
“An unknown, unfunded candidate — it didn’t look very good for Varilek,” Schaff said. “Varilek is giving Noem a little bit more run for the money than maybe we would have anticipated a few months ago, or maybe a few weeks ago.”
If Varilek does pull off the upset, what kind of person will South Dakota voters be sending to Congress in place of the now well-known Noem?
Eight years on congressional staff
The most recent, and arguably most important, part of Varilek’s background is the eight years he spent as a congressional staff member, first for Sen. Tom Daschle and, primarily, for Sen. Tim Johnson.
Varilek worked on economic development issues for the two senators, first in Washington, D.C., before moving to Sioux Falls in 2007. Businesses that wanted their senator’s help would come to Varilek, who also would represent his boss in meetings across the state.
Later, Varilek became Johnson’s “body man,” the personal aide who traveled with him in South Dakota. Varilek drove Johnson across the state and attended meetings.
“I was with him constantly, from early ’08 on, until I left the office,” Varilek said. “I joke, we got more quality time together than he probably ever bargained for.”
On the campaign trail, Varilek regularly cites his time working for Johnson on economic development.
“Every day I woke up, trying to help the senator’s efforts to help South Dakota become a more prosperous place, trying to help small businesses, trying to find resources for infrastructure,” Varilek said at a recent debate.
But differences between life as a staffer and life as a candidate are vast. Working for Johnson and Daschle, Varilek could stay largely behind the scenes. He earned a good salary with excellent benefits, working for causes he loved, while never having to worry about political opponents digging through his personal life and background and buying television ads attacking him.
From back to front as campaigner
Now he’s the guy in front of the cameras.
“Any mistakes that occur are mine. There’s a lot on the line with every appearance,” Varilek said, adding that he enjoys the new, more exposed role.
He got some advice on how to be a candidate from Johnson, his political mentor and backer.
“I talked to him about what it’s like to run for Congress,” said Johnson, who has won five House elections and three more Senate races over his congressional career. “I told him, ‘Do what’s right, and you’ll get along fine.’ ”
But Johnson has given Varilek more than just advice. Early on, Johnson gave him a crucial endorsement and money, and encouraged other prominent Democrats to support Varilek in his primary battle against Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth.
Varilek collected endorsements from former Sens. Tom Daschle and George McGovern and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars en route to a landslide primary win.
Republicans paint Johnson and Varilek’s relationship as one of political schemers.
“Sen. Johnson and Matt Varilek, they were plotting his campaign long before he left the office,” said Tony Post, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party.
Post pointed to a Varilek trip last November to Washington, D.C. It was an official visit for Johnson’s office, paid for by taxpayers. But on the trip, Varilek had discussions with Democratic Party campaign officials about his possible candidacy.
“Right before he left, he expensed the trip to taxpayers, which is troubling to say the least,” Post said.
Varilek said he obeyed all rules about political work by congressional staffers.
“It was most definitely an official trip where I was meeting with other members of staff and working on official issues. That was all done according to the rules,” Varilek said. “It’s inevitable that you have political discussions … and we’re allowed in our free time to have political conversations.”
Environmental analysis work
If Varilek loves to talk about his time with Johnson, Noem’s favorite part of Varilek’s biography is the time between Varilek’s college graduation in 1997 and 2004,when he went to work for Daschle.
During that time, Varilek alternated between graduate education and working on issues related to the environment.
In 1997 and 1998, he was a teaching assistant at the Biosphere II facility in Arizona, which had become infamous several years earlier for the collapse of two ambitious experiments amid infighting and mistakes. By the time Varilek showed up, the Biosphere II was under new management and largely avoided the spotlight.
But it was the start of a period of interest in environmental issues that has become a political liability as Varilek seeks elected office. From 1999 to 2001, and again from 2002 to 2004, Varilek worked as an analyst and broker for Natsource LLC, a company working with emerging markets for pollution emissions.
A decade earlier, President George H.W. Bush’s administration set up a system called cap-and-trade to deal with sulfur dioxide pollution, a contributor to acid rain. The system, in which total sulfur dioxide emissions are capped and companies can buy and sell permits to emit the gas, generally was seen as a success, and policymakers began looking at applying the same system to the larger question of carbon dioxide.
Natsource was at the forefront of carbon emissions markets, viewed by supporters as a way to tackle climate change with minimal economic consequences. At Natsource, Varilek wrote papers about cap-and-trade systems, exploring the laws and rules necessary to set up a working system and predicting the effects different laws would have on emissions markets.
Noem regularly cites these papers in campaign events and debates as proof Varilek is out-of-touch with South Dakota interests.
“Matt has spent years working on policies that would put into place and give a lot of traction to cap-and-trade legislation, which would be devastating to South Dakota and our ag industry and families living here,” said Noem, who in 2010 defeated incumbent Herseth-Sandlin by a margin of 48.1 percent to 45.9 percent. Third-party candidate B. Thomas Marking got about 19,000 votes.
Varilek said he doesn’t support cap-and-trade legislation and never did.
“I was an analyst, and my job was to understand the dynamics in those markets and provide that analysis to various clients,” Varilek said.
Varilek doesn’t bring up his time at Natsource much on his own. It earns a sentence in his official biography, which describes him boosting his “private sector experience” at an “energy commodities brokerage.”
While he cares about the environment, Varilek says his true passion is economic development — the subject of a full paragraph in his bio.
“I think the economic aspect of it is maybe the one I can pinpoint more easily,” Varilek said. “That relates to my upbringing as someone who needed a few helping hands to change my economic status.”
Tight times for family growing up
Varilek was born May 19, 1975, to Dave Varilek and Irene Varilek — now Irene Wolf — in Yankton, where he grew up.
The name Varilek is Czech, and Varilek jokes that even members of his extended family couldn’t agree on how to pronounce it. (Varilek pronounces the “ar” in his name like “air.”)
He said he doesn’t remember much about what things were like for his family when he was young. But by the second grade, when Varilek’s parents divorced and he went to live with his mom, money was tight.
“I come from a family that never had much money,” Varilek said at one of his debates with Noem. “Consequently, I’ve been working my whole life.”
The family wasn’t poor — “I don’t recall any times when we were not provided for,” he said — but there wasn’t “a lot of wiggle room in the budget.”
He worked a string of jobs — delivering newspapers, cooking burgers at Burger King, working as a waiter, a dishwasher and a security guard. Above all, Varilek highlights his time “picking beans” for local farmers.
Varilek later went on to study at prestigious colleges — Carleton College in Minnesota, Glasgow University in Scotland and Cambridge University in England.
Both foreign universities were paid for by scholarships — Cambridge by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Glasgow by Rotary International.
In Varilek’s campaign narrative, this early history of work and scholarships is the foundation for his politics. He said he’s running to represent people trying to reach the middle class, and middle class people trying to stay there.
“That experience shapes the way I see the world, and the fact that we are a state of middle class people dictates that we should have a representative who prioritizes standing up for middle class people,” Varilek said.
Preserving Medicare, no to some tax cuts
If elected, Varilek said he’ll fight to keep Medicare a defined-benefit system, opposing reform proposals from Republicans such as Noem to let younger people choose a premium-support method instead in which the government gives seniors money to buy health insurance.
He supports letting tax cuts expire for incomes over $250,000 a year, and says the money from these increased taxes should help pay down the debt. This, Varilek said, will help protect spending programs he sees as valuable from unnecessarily harsh cuts.
But while Varilek said these proposals grow out of his history growing up without much money, Noem said they reflect an affinity for big government.
“My opponent wants to give the government more control over your businesses,” Noem said at an August debate with Varilek. “He wants to tax you more. He wants to spend more. He wants more EPA and he wants more of a government-controlled society.”
That’s not true, Varilek said.
His voting record, he said, “would be attempting to represent the interests of regular South Dakotans, rather than spending my time taking pledges to defend the interests of those who are already doing so well.”
Signs ‘of a tight race,’ Democrat says
Can Varilek actually win?
Not surprisingly, Varilek argues it’s a tight race.
“Slowly, we’ve gone from a situation where I think folks assumed she would have a cakewalk to now a case where she’s attacking me by name in TV ads,” he said. “I think that’s a sign of a tight race.”
Rothenberg isn’t so sure, from his discussions with political insiders in Washington, D.C.
“Democrats continue to talk about it as kind of a dark horse upset special,” Rothenberg said. But the lack of announcements and investments in Varilek’s race by national Democrats, when they have put money into plenty of long-shot campaigns, suggests they’re not optimistic, Rothenberg said.
“Maybe something could happen there, but it really isn’t on our radar screen,” Rothenberg said. “There’s not enough national buzz about it.”
If Varilek is going to prove that national buzz wrong, he’ll have to win over people such as Don Nugent, who lives south of Madison.
Nugent said Varilek’s ads on TV have made him think twice about supporting Noem.
“I’ve always thought Kristi Noem was doing a pretty good job, but according to Matt Varilek, it’s the other side,” Nugent said.
Now Nugent is undecided, looking into both candidates in the final weeks before the election.
One thing seems obvious, Schaff said: What could have been a landslide for Noem is surprisingly competitive, even if Noem remains the favorite.
“While he’s an underdog, I think people might be surprised how close Varilek makes this,” Schaff said.