Matt Varilek isn’t running for Congress. Yet.
Varilek, an aide to Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., spoke to 15 members of the Davison County Democratic Party on Tuesday night at LifeQuest in Mitchell. The former high school debater gave a brief but polished speech, fielded questions and then sipped coffee, munched on a brownie and chatted with the Democrats.
He is considering a race for the nomination to run against Rep. Kristi Noem, a first-term Republican, and said he will continue to meet with Democrats and talk with his wife before he makes an announcement.
“We don’t have a final timeframe,” he said.
But on Tuesday night, Varilek, of Sioux Falls, sounded like a candidate.
He took aim at Noem and leveled several broadsides at her, accusing the state’s lone member of the House of having been pulled into a “tea party frenzy” during her year in public life.
“Kristi Noem has not been on our side,” Varilek said.
He said she has supported continuing subsidies for big oil and gas in Congress and he wonders why, since there are no such businesses in South Dakota and the country is in need of tax revenue.
Varilek said a close look at Noem’s campaign finance reports shows she has received thousands of dollars from Exxon, Chevron, Halliburton and other oil and gas companies.
“All of a sudden that vote doesn’t look so mysterious anymore,” he said.
Varilek said he has also watched in dismay as Noem has done little to help South Dakotans who rely on Medicare, children who depend on Medicaid and students who seek financial aid through the federal Pell Grant program. He said she has also not helped towns in need of assistance to maintain and improve their water infrastructure.
“And that really stood out to me,” Varilek said. “I don’t know if she even thinks these are good ideas for South Dakota.”
Varilek said he would be the kind of congressman who reaches out to Republicans and works with them. The word bipartisanship isn’t something he shies away from, he said.
Varilek said he was struck by Noem’s words when he attended a speech she gave recently in which she said politics are too polarized.
“Well, I couldn’t agree more,” he said. “But that’s kind of like Goliath calling David the bully.”
Varilek said he was dismayed when Noem sided with House Republicans who threatened to shut down the government this summer. That would have caused severe economic hardships, he said, and he was surprised she adopted that stance.
“It just made no sense at all,” Varilek said. “And I think that’s reckless.”
He said he favors raising government revenue by closing tax loopholes for big companies while also investing in programs to help people. Varilek referred to that as “a balanced approach to a balanced budget” and said he would vote to reduce the deficit.
Veteran Democratic campaign consultant Steve Hildebrand, a Mitchell native who now lives in Sioux Falls, is one of the people behind a Facebook effort to draft Varilek into the race.
Hildebrand served as a deputy national campaign director for the 2008 Obama campaign and has also worked for President Bill Clinton, Vide President Al Gore, Sen. Johnson and former Sen. Tom Daschle.
Noem’s communications director, Joshua Shields, declined to comment directly on Varilek’s possible candidacy.
“Rep. Noem is focused on her work empowering South Dakota small businesses and reducing their regulatory burdens,” Shields said.
But Tony Post, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, said voters deserve to know how Varilek differs from Sen. Johnson or if he shares his views and political stances.
“My first thought is, if he has aspirations, he needs to quit the cushy government job and start campaigning or just keep on the job,” he said.
Davison County Democratic Party Chairman Dave Mitchell said he was impressed with Varilek’s presentation.
Mitchell, a Dakota Wesleyan University professor, said he has often been embarrassed by Noem and some of the things she says. He urged Varilek to run, as did others at the meeting.
Matt Korzan, a South Dakota native who recently returned home after living in Virginia, told Varilek to run and also said finding a way to retain the brightest young people in South Dakota should be a major concern. Varilek agreed.
Kathryn Crockett said while she hopes he runs, she wants Varilek to take firm stands on issues. She said his speech was long on generalities.
Varilek, 36, grew up in Yankton and Tabor and studied at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he earned two master’s degrees with an emphasis on economic development. A Carleton professor, Paul Wellstone, stunned the Minnesota political world in the 1990s when he ran a long-shot Senate campaign and unseated a wellfunded incumbent.
“Maybe there’s a lesson there for all challengers,” Varilek said.
He worked as a market analyst before joining Daschle’s staff in early 2004. After Daschle’s loss to John Thune in 2004, Varilek joined Johnson’s staff, where he has served as his economic development director while also writing some speeches for the three-term Democrat.
Varilek started working in Washington, D.C., but moved home to South Dakota in 2007 and now accompanies Johnson when he tours the state. He said he has learned a great deal about government and people by spending time around Johnson.
“Tim says, ‘A South Dakota leader has to put South Dakota first,’ ” Varilek said.
Varilek and his wife, Maggie, live in Sioux Falls with daughters Willa and Mae.
So far, Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth is the only Democrat to have declared his candidacy for the state’s sole House seat.
U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, Tim Johnson’s son, is also considered a possible candidate, but Varilek said he didn’t “see any sign of that.”
Former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who is now working as a lobbyist for a Washington, D.C., law firm, has said there’s a 50-50 chance she will run for her old seat in 2012.
“That’s not what I’m focused on,” Varilek said of her possible candidacy.
Barth will speak to the Davison County Democrats on Nov. 15. The event will be open to the public.