SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – For South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg spending Saturday driving hundreds of miles on the state’s roads was not unusual. But by this past Sunday, it was clear that his latest trip was anything but routine: An investigation was underway that would reveal he struck and killed a man walking along a rural stretch of highway.
Ravnsborg has said that he thought he had hit a large animal while driving home to Pierre from a Republican fundraiser some 110 miles (180 kilometers) away in Redfield. He said he realized he killed a man only after returning to the site the next morning.
Until then, Ravnsborg had made few waves as the state’s top law enforcement officer, garnering a reputation as a quiet prosecutor, but a relentless campaigner who developed personal connections in the state’s Republican Party.
Ravnsborg crisscrossed South Dakota in his Ford Taurus, attending what are often small events known as Lincoln Day Dinners. He made the drive Saturday even though he does not face reelection for two years. Photos posted on the Spink County Republican Party’s Facebook page show no more than two dozen people at Rooster’s Bar & Grill.
It was Ravnsborg’s dutiful attendance of these events that propelled him from being a GOP outsider to winning the party's nomination for attorney general, said Republican state Sen. Lance Russell, who ran against him in 2018. Ravnsborg had mounted an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 2014, garnering just over 2,000 votes in the primary. But South Dakota political parties decide their candidates for attorney general at conventions, meaning they gather support from party stalwarts.
Ravnsborg shaped his tough-on-crime pitch around repealing a program called presumptive probation, which gives nearly automatic probation to certain nonviolent, lower-level felonies, including drug possession.
Since 2014, he also accumulated eight traffic tickets, including six speeding tickets in different counties. But he was not in danger of losing his driver's license, and he has had no tickets since taking office in 2019.
Ravnsborg has been unsuccessful in his attack on presumptive probation, failing to get legislators to buy in and clashing with the governor on how much it would increase costs in the prison system.