PIERRE | On paper, Matt Varilek and Jeff Barth couldn't be more different.
Varilek touts working his way through several colleges before spending nearly eight years employed by several U.S. senators. Barth is equally proud that he's had little to do with Congress in his three decades as a telephone company technician and six years as a county commissioner.
Varilek, 37, grew up in a lower-income family in Yankton and worked hard to gain several college degrees, including a master's degree from Cambridge University in England.
Barth was the Minneapolis-born son of a diplomat and spent his childhood in places such as Germany, Iceland and South Africa. He briefly attended college but never graduated, instead becoming a technician for Northwestern Bell, which eventually became Qwest.
Each candidate argues his background best qualifies him to win Tuesday's primary and challenge Republican Rep. Kristi Noem in November for South Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House.
"I think Washington, D.C., is broken," Barth, 60, told The Associated Press. "I think (Varilek) as a senatorial staffer is actually an expression of that D.C. problem. I think as a working man, as a muddy-boots-on-the-ground county commissioner, I bring an authentic South Dakota feel to things."
Varilek said it's his experience alongside senators that qualifies him most.
"That was such a great opportunity to get to know the state," he said, outlining his brief time working for Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota before joining South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson's staff in 2005. Since 2007, he's worked in South Dakota as Johnson's economic development director.
The experience allowed him to "get to know the communities, and also learn from Sen. Johnson how to do the job effectively," he said.
In the race to face off with Noem — a first-term incumbent whose fundraising has far outpaced her would-be competitors — Varilek seemed to have an advantage from the start. He raised far more money than Barth and gained early endorsements from Johnson and former Sens. Daschle and George McGovern.
But Barth, a Minnehaha County commissioner, garnered some unexpected national attention last month with a campaign video that went viral online and aired on CNN. In it, he walks around farmland covered in goofy props talking about his time overseas, his military service and even his experience riding an ostrich. At one point, he picks up a gun and fires — and a rubber chicken falls from the sky, apparently killed.
Varilek also tried his hand at humor in an earlier YouTube video, saying that he initially wasn't sure if his mother would be the only one to support his candidacy.
As of May 16, Varilek had raised more than $300,000 in campaign contributions, while Barth had raised just $45,000, with about half of that coming from a loan he made to his own campaign. (By the same date, Noem had raised $1.8 million.)
Varilek said he's proud of the endorsements by three of South Dakota's most noted Democratic senators. Barth said he wouldn't mind having those endorsements, but he believes the endorsements and campaign contributions also show Varilek is closely tied to a malfunctioning Washington.
The two candidates have agreed on many issues — such as the importance of crop insurance for farmers — but have differed on a pointed few, including whether taxes should be allowed to rise when tax cuts passed about a decade ago under then-President George Bush are due to expire later this year.
Varilek said he wants to end tax cuts for people earning higher incomes, but leave them in place for people with more modest incomes. He also wants to close some tax loopholes and end tax subsidies for oil companies.
"We need to take a balanced approach to balancing our budget, which means some spending cuts but also changes to the tax code that will increase revenues," Varilek said.
Barth said he would pursue spending cuts throughout the federal budget, but he opposes any tax cuts.
"I don't plan to raise taxes at all until our economy becomes more robust," Barth said.
Barth has said he would support gay marriage, but Varilek opposes it. Varilek said he supports civil unions to give same-sex couples equal treatment under the law.
The two Democratic candidates agree that President Barack Obama's health care overhaul should be revamped but not repealed. They said valuable provisions of the law include allowing young people to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26 and preventing insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing health conditions.
Barth and Varilek also agree that agriculture policy should to continue to rely on crop insurance as part of the safety net for farmers.
Varilek said the farm policy must support conservation programs, wind energy, biofuels and provisions that protect farmers from market manipulations by packers.
Barth said spending can be cut in the farm bill while still protecting farmers. He wonders why tobacco farmers are subsidized while the government is also discouraging smoking.
Barth, castigating Noem and Congress in general, said members of the House and Senate have failed to live up to their promises to cut spending and balance the budget. "They're not doing their jobs. They're lying," he said.
As the only candidate to spend time in the military — a half dozen years in the Army Reserve — Barth believes defense spending can be cut.
"Nobody is going to invade the United States," Barth said. "Personally, I have enough weapons to hold out for a while, and I bet the average South Dakotan has at least 20 rifles and pistols in their home."
Varilek said he offers Democrats the best chance to beat Noem in November.
"Since the beginning of this campaign, I've been working hard to build an organization capable of doing that," Varilek said.