South Dakota Republicans have proven their commitment to kakistocracy, rule by the worst. In the primary three weeks ago, South Dakota Republicans chose the lesser qualified of their candidates for Governor, a do-nothing D.C. farm-welfare beauty queen over an experienced prosecutor with twelve years of executive experience running statewide offices. And at their primary yesterday, in the only race legitimately contested at their convention, Republican delegates chose the least qualified of three candidates to nominate for Attorney General.
Republican nominee Jason Ravnsborg is a two-year volunteer part-time state’s attorney with no criminal prosecutorial experience in front of a jury. The Iowa native popped up out of nowhere four years ago and started groveling for the Republican Party’s attention with a quarter-hearted U.S. Senate bid, followed by a series of misinforming anti-Islam lectures and a GOP water-carrying campaign against 2016’s anti-gerrymandering independent redistricting proposal.
The semi-employed Ravnsborg had much more time to grovel/campaign than his opponent John Fitzgerald, who’s been Lawrence County’s full-time state’s attorney since 1995. His other opponent, Lance Russell, was state’s attorney (the real one, not a volunteer part-timer like Ravnsborg) for Fall River and Shannon counties from 2001 through 2008 and has served in the Legislature for District 30 since 2009. In addition to actually arguing criminal cases for the state in front of juries, Fitzgerald and Russell have both won general elections in which they’ve had to appeal to voters other than Republican die-hards. In campaign literature, Russell noted that he’s undefeated in nine contested elections. Ravnsborg’s win among 620 Republican delegates was his first election win, and he had to spend over $36,000 (and that’s as of one month ago, not counting whatever he spent on his June travels and mailings) to make a weighted majority of Republican delegates overlook his inexperience and lack of charisma to place him on the November ballot.
Hmmm… about $58 per delegate. Extrapolate that rate of spending to the 250,000-some voters who may show up to vote on the Attorney General’s race in November, and one may figure Ravnsborg may need to spend $14.5 million to get a majority of regular South Dakotans to choose his flimsy résumé over Democratic nominee Randy Seiler’s impressive record that culminates with his work as U.S. Attorney for South Dakota.
Matched up against Seiler, the only thing that can save Ravnsborg is the R around his neck. Seiler can outdo every other advantage Ravnsborg peddles. Ravnsborg claims his service in the army as a logistics officer makes him a leader. Seiler served in the Air Force in Vietnam before Ravnsborg was born. Ravnsborg claims that moving trucks and supplies around in the reserves proves his leadership skills. Seiler doesn’t have to port leadership skills from a separate branch of public service; he actually has led federal and county prosecutor’s offices, guiding investigators and lawmakers in pursuing justice. Ravnsborg’s camp appealed to delegates with an East River-based pitch about representing the whole state. That might have worked against his Black Hills-based opponents for the nomination, but Seiler can negate that ploy by pointing out that he really has served the entire state, not just as U.S. Attorney, but as a member of the state parole board, president of the state Board of Educators, and editor-in-chief of the state law review.
And stay tuned: while both Ravnsborg and Seiler have talked about the need to look at the Attorney General’s role beyond simply cuffing and stuffing criminals, now that the nominees are set, Seiler could flip the conventional script. Stay tuned for the Democratic candidate to emphasize his cred as the tough-on-crime top cop with a record of putting bad guys in jail, while the Republican candidate seeks refuge from his inexperience in that core field by talking about other soft skills.
Given the three ways from Sunday that Seiler can thoroughly roast Ravnsborg on the campaign trail, we must ask why Republican delegates would peak their weakest candidate to face the Democrats’ strongest candidate for Attorney General in Ravnsborg’s lifetime. I have a hard time explaining Ravnsborg’s ascent through any lens other than the lens of South Dakota Republican cronyism.
Recall that back in 2014, a disgruntled campaign insider said that Ravnsborg entered the already crowded Republican Senate primary at the behest of fellow Iowa transplant Dan Lederman. Ravnsborg never stood a chance against Mike Rounds; his couldn’t even outpoll train-wreck and ultimately convicted felon Annette Bosworth. Ravnsborg seemed to enter the race for mere foot-in-the-door recognition… as well as the chance to take a needless cheap shot at Lederman nemesis and fellow Republican candidate Stace Nelson.
To further pad his résumé, Ravnsborg in 2016 secured his volunteer part-time deputy state’s attorney position in Union County, a position from which statute might disqualify him on the basis of his residency two counties away. Ravnsborg secured this unusual appointment in Union County, where Dan Lederman lives and once served as county commissioner.
Ravnsborg also announced his candidacy for Attorney General way back in February 2017, just two weeks after his seeming patron Dan Lederman seized the chairmanship of the South Dakota Republican Party. Since the day of that announcement, Lederman-patronized spin blog Dakota War College has promoted Ravnsborg’s campaign uncritically. When a conservative website picked up on and confirmed with the Union County Clerk of Courts Fitzgerald’s charge that Ravnsborg had never tried a criminal case before a jury, Lederman’s friendly blog gave the potentially convention-shaking story no attention in his all-inside-baseball convention analysis other than sidelong mention as part of a political attack.
Jason Ravnsborg appears to owe his entire political existence to his in-ness with the Lederman machine. What better candidate could Lederman ask for in an attorney general than a complete lackey whose lack of qualifications for the office would leave him all the more dependent on his party patrons and their lawyers, who then would enjoy even more influence over who gets investigated and dragged into court and who doesn’t? Russell wouldn’t fit that bill: while he once served in the insider’s insider position of state GOP exec, Russell has become a Republican gadfly, joining fellow legislator Stace Nelson in various sallies against the GOP establishment. Fitzgerald’s happy decades of independent prosecuting in Lawrence County suggest he wouldn’t make a good Lederman lackey, either.
Earlier in this decade, I was bewildered by Republicans’ willingness to put up with the under-qualified Kristi Noem’s lack of achievement in Congress. It took a smart Democratic friend to explain to me that Republicans didn’t hire Kristi to actually legislate; they hired her to look good and win elections. Kristi was plenty qualified, just not for the job I thought we were talking about.
Maybe that’s why the Ravnsborg nomination has puzzled me so. I have the wrong-headed idea that Republicans were nominating someone to do the job of Attorney General. Ravnsborg is not qualified to do that job, not compared to the Republican contenders he vanquished, and not compared to the Democrat who will vanquish him. But Ravnsborg is eminently qualified for the job of party lackey.
Government by the least qualified candidates, dependent on and controlled by their party patrons—that’s the South Dakota Republicans kakistocracy.