An outspoken conservative state lawmaker is considering challenging former Gov. Mike Rounds for South Dakota’s U.S. Senate seat.
Stace Nelson, a representative from Fulton in rural Hanson County, said activists both in and out of South Dakota have asked him to run for higher office. That could include the Senate race, where some conservatives want an alternative to Rounds, the only declared Republican candidate, or challenging incumbent Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
“I’ve had quite a few folks from across South Dakota asking me to run for governor, asking me to run for Senate,” Nelson said. “It seems like there’s more every day,” Nelson said.
And Nelson is listening, with money being his primary concern.
“If I win the lottery, I would declare for one of those offices in a heartbeat,” Nelson said. “Short of that, I’ve got to do a lot of soul-searching.”
Nelson, first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2010, is a populist conservative who has repeatedly clashed with Republican leadership. Last year he was kicked out of the House Republican caucus, though he was re-invited this year after winning reelection. He’s outspoken on a variety of conservative issues including gun rights, cutting taxes and spending, and abortion, and helped lead a group of rural farmers in a successful battle against a large dairy proposed for Hanson County. A Marine veteran, he cuts an imposing figure at 6’7” and 320 pounds.
Political science professor Jon Schaff of Northern State University said Nelson or someone like him probably will challenge Rounds from the right.
“Stace Nelson strikes me as being exactly the kind of person who might make a run at this,” Schaff said. “I don’t know if it’s because he really honestly thinks he can beat Rounds, but certainly there’s going to be a certain wing of the Republican Party who is unhappy with Mike Rounds’ moderate Republicanism. They’re going to want to make at least an airing of the grievances, if you will, against that more pragmatic, less ideological wing of the Republican Party.”
Across the country, many Senate seats have seen primary battles between establishment Republicans and more conservative candidates — many won by the conservative challengers. Some of those conservative primary winners, such as Missouri’s Todd Akin, went on to lose to vulnerable Democrats in the general election. Others, such as Kentucky’s Rand Paul, also triumphed in the general election and earned a Senate seat.
In his state legislative races, Nelson is noted as a fierce campaigner who works hard and doesn’t mince words about his opponents.
But his fundraising has been unexceptional. He spent close to $15,000 for his House campaign in 2012. Rounds raised more $250,000 in just over one month last year after entering the race.
“The old Marine side of me would love nothing more than to serve South Dakotans,” Nelson said. “But what makes me extremely qualified to be a good public servant probably makes me extremely unqualified to raise the money to run against the two main political machines South Dakota has, (Daugaard) and Rounds.”
Sen. Tim Johnson, the current occupant of the Senate seat, is retiring. His son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, is widely rumored to be considering running as a Democrat for the seat.
At least one national group, the Senate Conservatives Fund, has promised to raise money for an acceptable conservative challenger to Rounds. And Nelson said he’s had other people promise him money if he runs.
“I’ve had folks tell me that if I declare my candidacy I can get the support and get the endorsements of conservative organizations,” he said. “I think the grassroots is there.”
Schaff was skeptical of Nelson’s chances against Rounds, but noted that “lightning does strike.”
“I have no doubt that someone like Nelson, the second he would announce, would probably have about 20 percent of the electorate,” he said. “Whether he could ever build up to 51 percent of the Republican electorate, obviously you have to say he’s a long-shot to do that. But stranger things have happened in politics. You only have to look at Mike Rounds — who would have thought at this point in 2001 that Mike Rounds would become governor of South Dakota?
But Schaff said a Nelson victory would probably have to involve Rounds either getting complacent or making major gaffes, and said both seem unlikely from a disciplined, veteran candidate like Rounds.
Nelson said he hopes other conservatives will run for both Senate and governor, so he doesn’t have to — and believes Rounds and Daugaard don’t count.
“We do need to get back to Reagan conservative Republicans that do truly believe in fiscal responsibility and reining in both our state and our federal government,” Nelson said. “I don’t see Gov. Rounds or Gov. Daugaard as being up to the task. In fact, I think they’ve been part of the problem.”
Rounds, who expects to face one or more primary challengers, said he’s focused on building up his campaign organization and fundraising.
“You have the plan for doing a primary,” Rounds said, when asked about Nelson’s possible candidacy. “You focus on that, and this doesn’t change anything.”
In the Legislature, Nelson has clashed with many of his colleagues. He’s noted for passionate speeches and strong claims about what ideas and people are or are not conservative.
“He just comes up with ideas that are radical and off the wall,” said former state lawmaker Gene Abdallah, who served with Nelson for two years.
But Nelson has forged close alliances with many of the most conservative lawmakers in the House. Rep. Don Kopp, R-Rapid City, called him “extremely intelligent.”
“Stace is a real good man,” Kopp said. “He’s fiercely patriotic. He’s very bold in his stands. He isn’t afraid to come out with his opinions on anything.”
(This post has been updated to correct the two “political machines” Nelson refers to. He says he referred to Mike Rounds and Dennis Daugaard, not Rounds and Tim Johnson.)