Barth to Noem: P-QN4

When I reached Minnehaha Commissioner Jeff Barth by phone Friday, he was in his car on his way to Fort Pierre to play in the South Dakota Chess Association’s annual team championship.

Barth, 59, is a longtime chess aficionado, and was even the South Dakota champion in 1993. (”I’ve been unable to replicate that success,” he said.) I asked him if he was ranked, and he guessed he was probably “in the top five in the state.”

“There’s a couple of people I probably can’t beat,” Barth said. “We’ve got a grandmaster from Russia who currently lives in Sioux Falls.”

But there’s someone else the Sioux Falls Democrat thinks he can beat: Kristi Noem.

Barth isn’t challenging the freshman Republican representative to a chess match (though I’d love to see that). Instead, he’s trying to take her down on her own turf: her Congressional seat.

Last week Barth became the first South Dakota Democrat to file as a candidate for the 2012 Congressional election. I got the word and called Barth up on Friday, which happened to include other news about that Congressional election — Noem announced she had raised more than $350,000 for her reelection campaign in the second quarter of the year.

That means that in the same period of time that Barth became eligible to raise money as a candidate, Noem has more than $600,000 in the bank.

In chess, players take turns moving. In politics, things aren’t nearly so fair. Barth’s opening situation against Noem looks more like this:

(Nothing, by the way, is implied about the choice of colors; my chess app simply defaults the human player to white, and I made that image just by moving a knight back and forth until black was sufficiently developed.)

Fortunately, Barth doesn’t have to worry about Noem quite yet. First he has to get the Democratic nomination, and he expects a primary. Matt Varilek, a staffer for Sen. Tim Johnson, has a “draft Varilek” movement afoot, as more astute political observers than I have already noted. Moreover, ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has said several times since the election that she’s not ruling out another run for her old seat. (Barth was quoted earlier this campaign as saying he’d step aside if Herseth Sandlin ran; on Friday he was more circumspect, saying he was trying to arrange a conversation with Herseth Sandlin and wouldn’t comment for now.)

Barth said his goal is to raise $100,000 for the Democratic primary, held in June 2012. By that time, Noem will certainly have raised more than a million dollars this election cycle.

“I don’t expect to be able to compete with her this year for money,” said Barth.

But he noted that last year, Noem didn’t even enter the race until the February before the primary, and in nine months raised more money than Herseth Sandlin collected in two years.

He also offered a preview of his message. To Democratic primary voters, he’ll argue he’s electable, pointing to his strength in the state’s largest county. In 2010, a very bad year for Democrats, Barth increased his share of the vote in a reelection campaign, he said.

More generally, he’ll cast himself as a pragmatic moderate.

“I try to be sensible about things without flying to one extreme or the other,” Barth said.

As an example, the Minnehaha County Commissioner pointed to the issue of taxes.

“I certainly don’t wake up every day planning to raise taxes, but if it needs to be done, it has to be done,” Barth said.

Is Jeff Barth the man Democrats will (or should) anoint as their champion to take on Noem? Whoever they pick will probably find Noem a very tough candidate — though no one is unbeatable, as Herseth Sandlin found out last year.

For a short while, at least, Barth has the Democratic field to himself. Now we get to see what kind of open he plays.

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