South Dakota’s candidates for attorney general are sparring over their legal experience as former U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler seeks to become the first Democrat in decades to win the office in heavily conservative South Dakota.
Seiler is campaigning against Republican lawyer and Army Reserve officer Jason Ravnsborg to succeed outgoing GOP Attorney General Marty Jackley as the state’s chief lawyer and law enforcement officer. A Democrat hasn’t held the office since the 1970s, but the 72-year-old Seiler is touting his background as a longtime prosecutor to sway voters.
“I think we break the streak because experience matters,” said Seiler, who spent more than two decades at the U.S. attorney’s office. Seiler said Ravnsborg has never tried a jury case as a volunteer prosecutor in Union County, adding: “You can’t learn to practice law while you’re serving as attorney general.”
But Ravnsborg, a partner at a Yankton law firm and a deputy state’s attorney for Union County, said he has 17 years of experience as an attorney including civil and criminal jury trials and hundreds of hearings. Ravnsborg declined to provide specific examples of his cases, questioning whether it would be appropriate out of fairness to his clients and because he’s sent people to prison.
A broadly endorsed Ravnsborg in June triumphed over two Republicans — including a state’s attorney who campaigned on his own prosecutorial background — for the party’s nomination. Ravnsborg recently told a group of Republicans gathered for lunch in Pierre that he’s driven more than 100,000 miles since last year.
Looking to November, Ravnsborg said that for all Seiler’s experience, he has few ideas.
“I talk about specifics, and I talk about ideas,” said Ravnsborg, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. “I think that people will respond more positively to what are you actually going to do for them to make their lives safer, more efficient and safer for law enforcement.”
Ravnsborg has proposed expanding programs that allow lower-level prisoners to work while serving their sentences and establishing a meth-specific prison and mental health facility in the central or western part of the state. Ravnsborg would also pursue changes to criminal and juvenile justice overhauls approved by lawmakers, including removing presumptive probation policies that currently apply to lower-level offenders. Seiler said he wouldn’t propose eliminating presumptive probation.
Republican Sen. Arthur Rusch, a retired judge, said at the GOP’s state party convention that Ravnsborg has demonstrated leadership the state needs in an attorney general, citing his military service. During his years as a judge, Rusch said, he saw Ravnsborg become an “experienced attorney in a wide variety of legal cases.”
“It’s important to have an attorney general who isn’t just focused on criminal cases, but has that wide variety of experiences,” Rusch said.
The high-profile office has served as a frequent springboard for gubernatorial hopefuls and takes on the state’s top legal cases, such as South Dakota’s recent successful push to get the U.S. Supreme Court to allow states to make online shoppers pay sales tax.
Seiler served as South Dakota’s U.S. attorney from 2015 through 2017, leaving after more than two decades at the office. As attorney general, Seiler said, his priorities would be consumer protection, keeping children safe, reviewing state government integrity laws and addressing meth and opioid addiction through opportunities for treatment and mental health counseling.
Former U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who served before Seiler under President Barack Obama, said Seiler is the “most experienced candidate we’ve ever seen run for attorney general” in South Dakota. He said Seiler pursued some of the toughest cases in the U.S. Attorney’s office involving drugs, civil rights, public corruption and violent crimes.
“Randy’s not running for this job because he wants to go on to become governor or congressman or anything like that,” Johnson said. “To have someone that is just running because they want this job, and it’s not a stepping stone, I think is important for South Dakota and is valuable.”
Democrats nationwide have increasingly looked to attorneys general in their states as a counter to President Donald Trump’s administration and its policies, but Seiler said he’s running for South Dakota — not against Trump or his agenda. Trump triumphed in South Dakota by a large margin in 2016.
Ravnsborg called the race a “classic contest” of conservative versus liberal — “I’m the conservative, and he’s the liberal.”
Ravnsborg and Seiler both reported having more than $60,000 on hand in May. The candidates won’t report new fundraising numbers until Oct. 22. A debate is scheduled on South Dakota Public Broadcasting on Oct. 11.