The Republican nomination for Attorney General was one of the more interesting convention fights that have taken place over the past decade, and while some of it unfolded out in the field, just like a good thriller (or horror movie) some of the best twists were saved until the end.
The Fitzgerald Pre-Convention Strategy – Conventional
Many people who are outside the party structure might not be aware that this was not Fitzgerald’s first rodeo, and he had unsuccessfully attempted to run at convention in the 1990’s.
Many of the techniques used then are the same as used now. And, the gruff Fitzgerald checked the boxes.
Fitzgerald’s campaign relied on the tried and true GOP Constitutional candidate nomination strategy of the Lincoln Day Dinner Circuit (aka the Rubber Chicken Circuit, describing the many mass-cooked dinner banquets entrees). You throw an odd appearance or two in via a GOP luncheon or monthly meeting, and you’ve got a campaign. Without fail, that’s how they all do it, and have for time immemorial.
In the past couple of cycles, candidates have introduced postcards as a reminder to delegates that they were still out there, and Fitzgerald was no different, sending a few to delegates. There was also posting on social media, etc.
Leading into convention, he did go out and meet and talk with delegates, again, part of conventional strategy. The campaign also added in SMS messaging, which didn’t always work well. They texted my wife a couple of times, thinking it was my number. She didn’t appreciate that.
It was a rote and conventional strategy, which the campaign executed. As all the boxes were checked, the campaign moved to Pierre.
The Russell Pre-Convention Strategy – Alliances and Air War
As the most seasoned politico in the race for Attorney General, Lance Russell knew he could not do it alone, so he brought in self-styled political consultant Jordan Mason to run his campaign operation allowing him the time he needed to work, as well as perform the duties of his office in the South Dakota State Senate.
During the period of time that Mason was working for Russell, He was also working for the Mickelson ballot measures, Shantel Krebs, Neap Tapio (for a short while), and anyone else he could possibly get his hands into, especially those aligned with the more ultra-conservative elements of the Republican party. There is also a close association with the South Dakota Gun Owners/National Association of Gun Rights groups.
The Ultra-Conservative association came to bear in the Russell Campaign, especially that close association with the Gun Owners/NAGR, which poured over 10K into the Russell Campaign via contributions and in-kind donations.
From those alliances came a massive air-war strategy in the campaign where delegates were pounded with mailing after mailing after mailing. Some might come from Lance himself. Some from the National Association of Gun Rights, some from the “Republican Direction PAC,” and on and on and on.
The campaign (or a related entity) was also organizing to put their preferred and supportive delegates in county precinct positions, again through an organized mail war. The problem with that was that all campaigns check the box of seeking preferential placement of delegates favorable to them.
With the mailing blasts landing until the final hours of the campaign, and with their people in place, they marched towards the GOP Convention in Pierre.
The Ravnsborg Pre-Convention Strategy- An Invasion of One
During his campaign addresses at convention, Jason Ravnsborg reminded delegates that he’d been to every county twice. Many would view that as a vast understatement, as Jason Ravnsborg has been a constant fixture at nearly every County GOP event for several years now.
He’s manned the GOP State Fair Booth, he’s been at nearly every rally, event, or gathering of more than 5 or six Republicans during all that time, whether he’s been talking about ballot measures, or his own candidacy in the more recent months.
With the same tireless and methodical method Ravnsborg used to attend everything, while all candidates were trying to predictably collect the blessings of States Attorney’s, Ravnsborg knew that group would largely be split, and went around it, quietly racking up the endorsements from a majority of the State’s respected county law enforcement officers, the Sheriffs, springing that on his opponents, a fact he reminded them in two endorsement mailings, one coming via postcard, and one coming in a convention packet.
In almost every instance, the vast majority of Republican faithful knew Jason, found him to be eager, helpful, likable, and without controversy or negative connotation in the run up to convention. The only shade being cast in his direction came from his opponents, which delegates took with appropriate skepticism.
Convention – The unmaking of those who would be king.
If you’ve been reading for any time now, you know many of the events that took place in the lead up to convention. The Republican Primary re-rolled the dice for many in the Party, and the accepted ‘establishment” was no longer the establishment. There is a new Sheriff in town.
Candidates hit Pierre, and almost immediately their convention plans were sprung into action.
The Fitzgerald campaign went all out in their campaign, bringing in signs and materials, at the same time they went hard, hard negative against Jason Ravnsborg, ignoring Russell, almost to the exclusion of anything else. It was a constant barrage attacking his experience, and that Fitzgerald was the one who had the most. The tenor of the campaign came off to many of the delegates as angry.
The Russell campaign had allied itself with the more ultra-conservative elements of the GOP, and had the full throated support of Senator Stace Nelson. Why is this important? Ever since the primary, instead of preparing for convention to solely help Russell, Nelson packed his bags for an ego trip.
Nelson started out promoting former State Rep Dan Kaiser for Lt. Governor, even before Kristi Noem had made her choice. Unfortunately for Nelson, he didn’t have Kaiser’s blessing. Even after Noem chose popular conservative State Rep. Larry Rhoden for the slot, Nelson persisted, with the aid of Rep. Liz May. And Kaiser continued in his denial. At that point, with continued disavowals from Kaiser, the Draft Dan Kaiser movement became the State Nelson for Lt. Gov movement, making Nelson completely radioactive. That was Thursday.
By Friday, as delegates were starting to arrive, candidate delegate counts of attendees were starting to gel, as did rumors of the Russell affiliated ultra-conservatives bringing in buses of delegates, spurred on by their great Lt. Gov crusade to put “a true conservative” in as the Lt. Gov pick.
At some point in the afternoon, likely after running their numbers, the Russell campaign and the Fitzgerald campaign had a very public mid-afternoon sit-down in the pool area of the GOP Convention.
With Russell having Zach Lautenschlager of the South Dakota Gun Owners acting as his consigliere, and Fitzgerald confidante’ John Teupel acting as his own, it was clear that a plan was being hatched to try to take out the competition.
Why was it needed? In the run up to convention, it was circulating in the rumor mill that the numbers looked very favorable to Ravnsborg, and that he had a commanding lead, especially those up and down the I-29 corridor.
While Fitzgerald and Russell were splitting up West River and going after Brown County, Ravnsborg was working everything up and down the Eastern SD Interstate. With everyone going after Brown County, it was likely going to be split. Bur Ravnsborg had also focused on gaining a near lock on Lincoln County, which the other candidates hadn’t put as much effort into, and he had hard totals of about 60% of Minnehaha. In several of those counties I-29 counties, he had around 50% or more. They just had to show up.
As the delegates started to arrive, campaigns had to be counting their tallies. And Fitzgerald and Russell had to be coming to a similar conclusion. To have any chance, they needed to knock out Ravnsborg. What was hastily attempted on Friday (from reports I was hearing) was that the two trailing campaigns were demanding a debate between all three AG Candidates. But there were two problems.
Problem #1, which they anticipated, was that Ravnsborg had no interest in playing their game. Problem #2 was the venue. The convention sponsors were approached with the debate proposal and the campaigns were turned down flat, since it would occupy the space they were holding the Friday Night banquet. They wanted a hard time of an 8pm debate, which would have been impossible anyway, since the Gubernatorial Nominee was still speaking at 8:10. It would have required tear down, clean up, and reconfiguration, making even the thought of the attempt a ridiculous one.
What was the alternative plan? A joint press release from the two AG campaigns issued in the early evening which turned out to have the opposite effect to what it was intended.
During the Friday night banquet, as delegates sat and visited, Zach Lautenschlager of South Dakota Gun Owners started dropping fluorescent blue flyers of the release at the left on tables. He’d nearly gotten all of them until he was stopped by GOP staff.
And come to find, as they were sitting down at a banquet to honor a past Governor (Frank Farrar) and listen to their next Governor Kristi Noem, delegates didn’t like it. They really, really didn’t like it.
It fired up many delegates and swung those on the fence against the two campaigns. And the negative barrage that followed in the hours after only solidified delegate’s dislike for what took place.
On Saturday delegates awoke to more negativity under their doors. and it continued to solidify the decisions of the night before.
Delegate numbers swelled in the early hours the day, until they numbered well over 600. The rumored buses of delegates being brought in by the Russell campaign amounted to not as many as some had predicted, but he still added to the total from several west river areas.
But there was a big vote to go first, to demonstrate the power of the ultra-right coalition being brought in to try to dominate the convention voting process. They would try to bring Stace Nelson as their man for Lt. Governor.
It was a slaughter. Unfortunately for them, it was their own slaughter and demonstrated a complete and utter debacle for the group. The normal order of the process is Nomination & second from floor. Nominating and up to two seconding speeches from the podium, and then a 5 min speech from the candidate. Rhoden’s nomination went off without a hitch with all the standard nominations and speeches (Matt Michels did the main nominating speech, and Dale Bartscher gave the second).
Then there was Stace Nelson’s nomination. Someone from Butte County nominated him from the floor, with an unknown second. The speeches were called for. And there were crickets. Absolutely no one out of over 600 people would come and give a nominating speech for Nelson. It was beyond awkward.
Stace Nelson literally had one of the worst losses in convention history. By nearly a 60% margin, 78% to 22%, the allies of one of the AG campaigns had just been crushed in their first attempt on the convention ballot.
The other races went along without a hitch. And then the time arrived for Attorney General.
Russell had two great nominating speeches from Sen Brock Greenfield and Rachel Kippley of Brown Co. Ravnsborg had an ok speech from Rep Les Heinemann and a great one from Sen and former Judge Art Rusch. And Fitzgerald started out by having former Rep. John Teupel yell his nominating speech for Fitzgerald angrily at the crowd.
And the voting was on.
With one county to go, it appeared that Ravnsborg might take it in the first vote with over 50%, obviating the need for a second vote.
But as confusion over certified voters for Pennington was resolved and they were able to finally cast their vote, it clearly had to go to a second vote:
Fitzgerald was out, and it was down to Russell and Ravnsborg. The chair called for a new vote immediately after a break while they got reset. Lots of Fitzgerald people scattered. Fitzgerald was talking to a few people, and Ravnsborg started working the room.
Rep. Tim Goodwin complained to the chair that Ravnsborg was working the room. And the chair had to point out that this was the time for them to do that. Some members of a faction were not paying attention.
And the new vote was not long in coming:
With Russell picking up nearly 20,000 of Fitzgerald’s votes, over 30,000 of them moved to Ravnsborg. it was evident that the alliance on paper to try to take down Ravnsborg did not transfer over to the delegates Fitzgerald had in hand. If Fitzgerald was supposed to communicate to his people to support Russell, it didn’t happen, or it was not effective.
The race was definitively won by Ravnsborg. Russell was out, not quite as strongly as Nelson was repudiated, but the delegates he brought to Pierre were not enough to propel him to a win.
In closing, Ravnsborg gave an emotional speech how Saturday was the day his mother died 1 year ago. And now he would be able to remember it as not just a day of sadness, as he thanked the delegates, thanked the other candidates in the race, including Charlie McGuigan who had dropped out earlier, and declared to his father that he loved him.
And the chapter was closed on this phase of the race for Attorney General.