SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Republican Rep. Kristi Noem and Democratic challenger Matt Varilek planned to be among the first voters to cast ballots early Tuesday before making last-minute campaign pushes in their hard-fought race for South Dakota's lone U.S. House seat.
Noem said she would vote right after she bundled her children off to school and then swing through some small towns close to her family's ranch near Hayti in northeastern South Dakota. Varilek was voting near his home in Sioux Falls and then joining campaign workers in calling supporters to make sure they got to the polls.
He planned to stay positive after pulling his ads attacking Noem off television on Saturday. Varilek said he thought voters were fed up with negative campaigning after months in which the candidates pelted them with ads and sparred in debates and on the campaign trail.
"I think people appreciate the fact I've decided on my own to run only positive TV ads to the end of the campaign," Varilek said Monday.
Noem continued running her ads, saying she wanted to "contrast" her record with Varilek's views.
"We're going to make sure we're consistent with our messaging so people know they have a clear choice in this election," she said. Her campaign also said Varilek apparently failed to ask that some attack ads be pulled from an Aberdeen radio station.
Voters were beginning to collect at polling stations around the state. About 20 people lined up at a voting site outside a VFW post in Sioux Falls in advance of the 7 a.m. poll opening, some of them reading over sample ballots and others just sipping steaming cups of coffee.
South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant predicted about 70 percent of the state's registered voters would cast ballots, down slightly from the 73 percent voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election. Polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time.
Brian Sather, a 63-year-old dentist, was at the VFW poll in Sioux Falls. He said he typically votes early to avoid long lines later in the day. He was eager to cast his vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"I think we need change," he said.
The Noem-Varilek race dominated the political season in South Dakota. Varilek, a 37-year-old former congressional staffer, had criticized Noem during their final debate on Friday for the tone of her ads, including one that depicts him as a monster beheading people.
He also planned an election night party with a pointed reference to another one of her ads. The ad had praised Noem for working for farmers while criticizing Varilek for hosting "a raucous National Corndog Day party in his swanky D.C. neighborhood, serving more than 1,000 corn dogs, 1,200 beers and a 150-pound ice luge for consuming shots of Jagermeister."
Varilek said corn dogs would be served when his supporters gathered in Sioux Falls on Tuesday evening to await returns.
Linda Burchill, a 60-year-old Pierre resident who works in a coffee shop, said she doubted Varilek's last-minute change of tone would affect the race.
"It's too late to change it in the last two days," Burchill said Monday. "People already know how they're voting."
Elizabeth Smith, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, said she suspected Noem would win because most House incumbents win re-election. But she said Varilek has run an aggressive campaign, and a lack of independent polling makes the race hard to predict.
"It's anyone's guess," she said.
Some voters received incorrect information about polling places. South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf said a political action committee set up by the party sent mailings to tens of thousands of Democrats and independents expected to support Democrats, and about 5 percent listed incorrect polling places. Nesselhuf said the party was calling those voters to give them correct information.
Along with the state's lone U.S. representative, voters were choosing state lawmakers and two members of the Public Utilities Commission, a three-member panel that regulates electric, natural gas and telephone utilities.
They also were deciding on several ballot issues, including Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard's plan for merit pay for teachers and proposed state constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
Still, the House race drew the lion's share of attention this election year.
Varilek hammered Noem for missing many House committee meetings and failing to get a farm bill passed before Congress recessed for the election. He also accused her of supporting Republican plans that he said would wreck Medicare, the health care program for retirees, and give tax breaks to the wealthy.
Noem said she attended most of the meetings she was accused of skipping and missed others because she couldn't be in two meetings at once. She accused Varilek of supporting tax increases on middle-class families and small businesses and backing the health care overhaul she argued would increase costs instead of reducing them.