Incumbent Kristi Noem, far right, and challenger Matt Varilek, left, debate Wednesday at the Dakotafest in Mitchell. Jerry Oster, center, of WNAX radio, moderated the debate.

Melissa Sue Gerrits/Sioux Falls Argus Leader

Democratic House candidate Matt Varilek hammered Rep. Kristi Noem over the stalled progress of the farm bill at their first debate Wednesday.

But Noem swung right back, accusing Varilek of supporting expansive government and a cap-and-trade program.

The encounter, at the Dakotafest ag show in Mitchell, was the first of four debates the two have agreed to so far. Varilek, a relative unknown who has worked as an economic development specialist for Sen. Tim Johnson, tried to seize the opportunity to challenge Noem's record on ag issues.

"The House leadership chooses not to bring (the farm bill for a vote), and our one member of Congress is a member of that leadership," Varilek said, referring to Noem.

He repeatedly returned to the farm bill, accusing Noem of not supporting an effort to force a vote and of not being vocal at meetings of the House Agriculture Committee.

"We might not be in this situation if my opponent had been more focused on ag issues longer ago," Varilek said.

Noem defended her record, arguing she was working hard to pass a farm bill and that it was the fault of Congressional Democrats that the bill hasn't yet passed. She accused Varilek of lying and making up facts.

"There was so much spin in that story that Matt almost fell out of his chair," Noem said after Varilek criticized her position on forcing a vote on the farm bill. While Noem chose not to lead that effort, she said Wednesday she plans to support it if there's still no progress when Congress reconvenes in September.

Varilek, too, accused Noem of untruths. When she attacked him for allegedly supporting a cap-and-trade system to control carbon emissions, Varilek said Noem's accusations were "just false, folks."

After the debate, Varilek said he does not support cap and trade or an energy tax, and never had.

The exchange over cap and trade was part of a broader effort by Noem to paint a picture of Varilek as a champion of big government.

"My opponent wants to give the government more control over your farm ... (and) businesses," Noem said. "He wants to tax you more. He wants to spend more. He wants more EPA, and he wants more of a government-controlled society."

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Varilek responded by saying he was a champion of the middle class, not bigger government.

The two candidates agreed on several issues, although both followed that by pivoting to differences. Both said they supported country-of-origin labeling and liked the U.S. Senate's version of the farm bill's commodity program, which is friendlier to northern crops such as corn and wheat than the House version. Both also opposed proposals to grant a waiver from a requirement to blend ethanol into gasoline and to scrap the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

But the two clashed over a range of issues:

  • Estate tax: Noem called to end the estate tax, saying she didn't believe "death should be a taxable event," especially since that money already had been taxed as income. Varilek said an estate tax should be applied to the truly wealthy – citing Bill Gates, Donald Trump and Paris Hilton – but called for small businessmen and family farms to be exempt from such a tax.
  • Medicare: Varilek criticized a Medicare plan, authored by Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, as privatizing Medicare at the expense of future senior citizens. Noem defended that plan for offering seniors a choice about their health care plan, and said it was a way to save Medicare from going bankrupt.
  • Food stamps: Noem supports changes to the federal food stamp program, included in the House version of the farm bill, that would save billions of dollars. She said the reforms would ensure only people who need the food aid would get it. Varilek said those changes went too far and would hurt families who rely on those programs.

Both candidates brought plenty of supporters to the debate, leading to regular cheers and jeers from a lively crowd. Debate moderator Jerry Oster of WNAX Radio in Yankton asked the crowd to let the candidates talk on several occasions.

The debate was sponsored in part by the South Dakota Corn Growers and South Dakota State University.

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