Nelson's political future cloudyafter Senate race
Ever since Stace Nelson exploded onto South Dakota's political scene in 2010, he has been bold, brash and unwilling to compromise, even with others in his Republican Party.
The 47-year-old former U.S. Marine and retired federal law enforcement agent returned to the Mitchell area, where he grew up, in 2008, and almost immediately became politically active. Within two years, he had earned election to the South Dakota House of Representatives, where he quickly made waves.
Barely into his second year mixing with his legislative colleagues in the Capitol, Nelson was thrown out of the House Republican caucus -- daily closed-door meetings -- after a public dispute with House Republican leaders.
Now, after a respectable showing but a loss against former Gov. Mike Rounds in a five-way Republican primary for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Nelson, of Fulton, has no intention of fading into the background.
He is coy about his exact plans, talking about taking his grandson fishing and to the zoo, but his rhetoric remains as strong as ever.
"I will remain with the conservative wing of the GOP in supporting those traditional conservative views," he said in an email exchange, in which he took issue with a recent Daily Republic editorial that described him and other Tea Party candidates as "extreme."
"How am I too extreme when Mike Rounds just spent the last 10 months trying to convince South Dakota that he is a conservative just like me? Extreme is near the opposite of conservative," Nelson said.
Since he came in a close third in Tuesday's primary with 17.7 percent of the vote, Nelson won't be on the November ballot. But he is the Republican national committeeman for Hanson County, which means he is likely to attend future state and national GOP conventions.
Before then, though, it appears likely that he will work in some way on the campaign of former state lawmaker Gordon Howie, of Rapid City, who is challenging Rounds in the general election as an independent.
Neither Howie nor Nelson will speak in any detail about what role Nelson might play, but it's a fair bet that the former Marine has a database of voters and campaign donors the Howie campaign can tap.
"As you know, Stace is larger than life in every sense of the word," Howie said of his 6-foot-7-inch friend. "Stace is a wonderful friend and supporter. I expect he will continue to be very supportive. Frankly, I would like to see him take a week or so and rest up. He invested his heart and soul into that campaign. I'm not wanting to press him for awhile."
Nelson said simply, "I have no plans as of right now," when asked if he might make public appearances or help raise money on Howie's behalf. In recent interviews, Nelson has touted Howie, a former Republican lawmaker, as a solid "Christian conservative."
On Friday, Howie released a YouTube video declaring that Mike Rounds' 55 percent victory on Tuesday shows weakness.
"After spending over $2 million, Mike Rounds has lost nearly half of the Republican Party," Howie says in the ad. "Forty-five percent of the voters rejected the Rounds record of growing government and increased taxes."
Biggest asset for Howie
With the Howie campaign already on the offensive, one of South Dakota's political experts said Nelson's support will provide a significant boost.
"He's the biggest asset Howie has," said Jon Schaff, political science professor at Northern State University. "Nelson has a corps of dedicated followers that create a kind of organization and guarantee at least some measure of support. And Nelson right now has bigger name recognition than Howie. Finally, Nelson has support outside of the Rapid City area, which I don't think Howie really does (because that lack of name recognition)."
At the same time, Schaff said Howie's campaign is a "sure loser" and he says Nelson's fervor for a losing cause spells long-term doom for his political career.
"This represents a challenge for Stace Nelson. If he hopes to have any political future, he has to show that he can add to his coalition. So far I don't think he's done that," Schaff said. "He has alienated so many Republicans that his future in that party may be over as far as statewide office goes. This is a sign of someone who is an activist, but not a very good politician."
Nelson rejects this notion, noting that Schaff also declared him a strong asset for the Howie campaign.
Schaff said his relative success on the Republican Senate primary, earning 13,179 votes, might be Nelson's "high-water mark."
"Nelson is very loud and brash. I think we see this quite often in politics, the 'die hard' who gets a lot of attention because he says the extreme thing in a brash manner (I am thinking of a Bill Napoli or people like Michelle Bachman or Allan Grayson nationally). The thing about such folks is their manner is often counterproductive," he said. "Nelson seems proud of the fact that no one will work with him."
Nelson said he might again run for the Legislature. He opted to instead focus on his U.S. Senate race this year but does not rule out future runs.
"That would depend on whether those in office support good conservative principles and policy while serving our district," he said.
And he doesn't plan to change despite observations from political observers, like Schaff, or losses in a statewide race.
"My 'political style' is that I am a public servant, not an on-all-sides-of-an-issue politician. What the professor describes is exactly the problem in South Dakota and the USA -- politicians that are not concerned about being honest and forthright on an issue, but being on all sides of the issue to avoid alienating the public on important issues," Nelson said.
"Politicians are worried about their long-term perspectives. I have always been only worried with being honest with the public and working towards the solutions to fix the problems regardless of political advantage or personal political advancement. I have never had a desire to be a successful politician. This country is already too full of such slick creatures."