Political intrigue swirls around upcoming attorney general election in South Dakota
Question of who will serve as the state’s chief law enforcement official hangs in the balance
South Dakota’s political landscape will enter uncharted territory over the next two months as uncertainty over the Attorney General’s Office tests party loyalties and candidate qualifications heading into the Republican state convention June 23-25 in Watertown.
The question of who will serve as the state’s chief law enforcement official hangs in the balance.
Impeached and suspended Jason Ravnsborg is working behind the scenes to build delegate support while also preparing for his Senate trial, to be held just days before the GOP convention.
Former two-term Attorney General Marty Jackley has returned to the campaign trail to give the GOP an alternative to the embattled Ravnsborg, forming a political alliance with Gov. Kristi Noem to bolster his case among law enforcement officials and party leaders.
And Democratic Party Chairman Randy Seiler, a career prosecutor and former U.S. Attorney who lost to Ravnsborg in the 2018 general election, has told South Dakota News Watch he will run for Attorney General again – but only on one condition.
“I won’t run against Jackley,” said Seiler. “But if Jason emerges as the Republican nominee, I will run.”
Candidates for attorney general are decided not by voters in the June 7 primary but by delegates at the convention two weeks later, a process that allows political alliances to loom as large as legal credentials or, in Ravnsborg’s case, being the subject of a high-profile criminal investigation.
That creates an interesting timeline, with Ravnsborg’s impeachment trial set to begin June 21. If he’s convicted by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, the 46-year-old Iowa native will be removed from office and disqualified “to hold any office of trust or profit under the state,” according to state law.
Anything short of a conviction, however, means he can run again. Ravnsborg has been contacting delegates trying to fend off a challenge from Jackley, who entered the race in March of 2021 and has the support of not just Noem but former attorneys general such as Roger Tellinghuisen and Mark Barnett.
“I would say circumstances caused my phone to ring and email to buzz fairly extensively,” said Jackley, a 51-year-old Sturgis native who would become the first attorney general in state history to return to the office in non-consecutive terms.
Most political observers see Jackley as a clear favorite, with the understanding that strange things can still happen at the convention. Jim Gilkerson, a party delegate who is chairman of the Brookings County Republicans, said he will support Jackley because of “frustration” over Ravnsborg’s legal troubles and the way he has handled them.
Ravnsborg did not respond to an interview request for this story made through his spokesman, Mike Deaver.
“I really like Jason – he’s a personal friend of mine,” said Gilkerson. “But I don’t think it’s going to work for him to be Attorney General after the problems we’ve had. I don’t know how you have something that serious happen and continue, or even want to continue, in that job.”
That’s been a quandary for South Dakota Republicans ever since Ravnsborg struck and killed a pedestrian with his car on a highway west of Highmore on Sept. 12, 2020, setting off 19 months of legal and political controversy, including power struggles within the state’s dominant political party.
Noem pushed for the resignation of Ravnsborg, who pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and avoided jail time for the crash that killed Joe Boever. Ravnsborg accused Noem of a conflict of interest and seeking more control of the Attorney General’s office. Their feud served as a backdrop to the impeachment process, with House members voting 36-31 against Ravnsborg.
In Ravnsborg’s absence, the office is being run by Deputy State’s Attorney Charlie McGuigan, a veteran prosecutor who “can start the process of restoring trust and confidence in the office,” according to Seiler.
“For the criminal justice system to operate efficiently and effectively, it needs the confidence and trust of the public,” said Seiler. “By not stepping down and continuing to work while being the subject of an investigation, Jason put his own political career and ambitions ahead of the obligations and responsibilities of the Attorney General’s Office.”
Concerns about political machinations outweighing legal experience emerged within the party during Ravnsborg’s 2018 campaign. His primary credentials consisted of serving as part-time deputy state’s attorney in Union County – a role that did not include lead trial work – and as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves.
Ravnsborg’s opponents at the 2018 convention in Pierre were Lawrence County State’s Attorney John Fitzgerald, a seasoned Rapid City (Deadwood?) trial lawyer, and Fall River State’s Attorney Lance Russell, whose state legislative experience included chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“My analysis was that I didn’t think Jason had ever tried a jury trial, and at the end of the day, I thought I had a good chance, and that John had a good chance because of our experience,” said Russell. “I must say I was surprised that neither one of us did better than we did. I thought the delegates might put a little more stock in experience.”
Each county can be represented at the convention by its party chairman, vice chairman, secretary and treasurer, as well as committeeman and committeewoman. As many as three at-large delegates can be elected in the primary. Precinct committee members can also serve, meaning there are about 2,000 potential statewide delegates.
Ravnsborg, who raised more money than his GOP opponents in 2018, picked up 47 percent of delegate votes in the first round (in which Fitzgerald was eliminated) and 63 percent in a head-to-head matchup with Russell to secure the nomination.
“I have to give credit where credit is due,” said Russell. “Jason ran circles around me in terms of contacts he had with precinct committee people and party leadership, and I think he’s trying to do the same thing this time around. Do I think he can beat Jackley? That’s probably unlikely. But Marty should be making as many contacts as he can.”
In his acceptance speech at the 2018 convention, Ravnsborg pledged to be a “man for all the people” and urged party officials to be united for his cause. But questions about his qualifications lingered into the general election against Seiler, a career prosecutor who served as U.S. Attorney in Sioux Falls from 2015-17.
No Democrat has been elected Attorney General in South Dakota since Kermit Sande in 1972, but two Republicans who held the office – Mark Meierhenry and Tellinghuisen – crossed party lines to endorse Seiler in 2018.
“I was looking at it purely from a non-political standpoint,” said Tellinghuisen, who served as Attorney General from 1987-91 and now works in private practice in Rapid City. “I thought Randy had far greater experience as a prosecutor than Ravnsborg, and it was better to have someone with that background in the position.”
Ravnsborg received 55 percent of the vote to defeat Seiler, taking office in January 2019. The fatal crash came less than 20 months later, and Tellinghuisen is careful to separate Ravnsborg’s job performance before the incident from the tumult that followed.
“I believe that the events that led us to this point had little or nothing to do with the actual performance or duties of the attorney general,” said Tellinghuisen. “Whether or not these events have undermined public confidence in the office, I think that’s a fair question.”
— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at SDNewsWatch.org.