The newest candidate for South Dakota’s U.S. Senate seat is state representative Stacey “Stace” Victor Nelson, 46. A farmer from near Fulton in rural south-central South Dakota, Nelson is a big man with a big personality who will shake up the race even if he doesn’t win.
If you’re not familiar with “Stace”, here’s 10 things to know about him:
1. He’s very conservative: Nelson calls himself “the most conservative elected official in the state of South Dakota,” and his behavior in the state Legislature makes that at a defensible proposition, depending on your definitions. He votes against almost every tax and fee increase, against new government regulations, against abortion. Nelson has also led the charge opposing gun regulations, including sponsoring a failed bill attempting to nullify federal gun laws in South Dakota. Controversial legislative scorecards assembled by allies of Nelson (and distributed online with his help) rate him as the most conservative lawmaker, though it’s worth noticing those scorecards have plenty of critics who say their votes were cherry-picked to get a desired result. Regardless, from Nelson’s point on the political spectrum, he believes many Republican Party officials are big-government liberals.
2. He’s a Marine veteran and former investigator: Nelson joined the U.S. Marine Corps after high school and served for 13.5 years before being discharged with an injury, though never in combat. After that, he joined the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for another decade, where among other things he investigated sexual assaults.
3. He’s tech-savvy: Nelson has long tweeted on his own as @RepStaceNelson. He hand-coded his website, and helped host an outside group’s legislative scorecard on his own server — for which he took some steps to conceal his involvement, though not enough that a tech-savvy person didn’t figure it out.
4. He isn’t afraid to fight with his own side: In 2012, in his second year in the Legislature, Nelson got kicked out of the House Republican caucus under highly unusual circumstances. The majority leader and the Speaker of the House accused him of being disruptive and confrontational to other members, charges Nelson denied. That eviction happened after Nelson toured the state, telling tea party groups that Republican leadership were corrupt and heavy-handed. Later, Nelson and the majority leader accused each other of being liars in a committee hearing. This year, Nelson got readmitted to the caucus, but he’s kept up public criticism of party leaders such as Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Nelson’s new Senate rival Mike Rounds.
5. He’s a hard worker: Even people who aren’t fans of Nelson admit he can be a tireless campaigner. His yard signs were all over his expansive legislative district, and rivals in Nelson’s elections (particularly his first) say he was nearly omnipresent on the campaign trail. Outside of electoral politics, Nelson organized a grassroots activist group to successfully protest a planned corporate dairy in Hanson County, holding meetings and waging a multi-prong attack on the proposal. When he started feuding with legislative leaders, he crisscrossed the state telling his story to tea party groups.
6. He’s allegedly not afraid to get his hands dirty: Nelson denies some of these charges, but he’s a named defendant in a politically-fraught civil lawsuit accusing him of helping to send out illegal robocalls attacking local Republican leadership. Those robocalls included no disclosures of who was sending or paying for them, and were sent from anonymous prepaid cell phones. One activist is facing criminal charges in the matter. Another activist testified under oath that Nelson helped plan the robocalls, contributing his campaign expertise and possibly editing scripts and distributing the calls. Nelson called those statements “hearsay” and stood by his previous denials that he wasn’t directly involved in the robocalls, though he didn’t specifically deny the new charges.
7. He’s a populist: Many of the times when Nelson has fought with Republican leadership, or voted against the party position, have involved support for business. Nelson led the opposition against a bipartisan economic development package, believing it was unconstitutional and bad practice to hand out targeted incentives for companies to do business in South Dakota. The dairy he opposed (#5) was backed by many powerful interests in the state.
8. He’s seen the world and came back home: As a Marine, Nelson was stationed in East Asia for a number of years, and he has some fondness for the culture. He’s defended tofu, and even met his wife Aiza while serving in Manila. But when that was done he came back to South Dakota and started farming in rural Hanson County.
9. He might have a temper: Like #6, many of the facts here are contested. But it’s definitely the case that Nelson, blunt and outspoken, has clashed on multiple occasions with people who pronounced themselves afraid of him, justified or not. His banning from caucus was related to a confrontation with a Republican state lawmaker, Nick Moser, with some accusations that Nelson threatened to kill the diminutive Moser. Nelson called that an outright lie, but there was definitely a confrontation between the two on the House floor that contributed to his expulsion. Earlier, Nelson clashed with the local sheriff in his home county. After leaving office, that sheriff, Mark Kessler (unrelated to Pennsylvania police chief Mark Kessler), eventually sought a restraining order against Nelson (later withdrawn), called Nelson a “psycho” and accused Nelson of stalking him. The charges came after a growing feud between the two involving Nelson filing legal complaints against Kessler. Those disputed clashes aside, Nelson definitely gets passionate when talking about politics.
10. He’s not afraid to pick a losing fight: Nelson’s career in the Legislature has included plenty of passionate speeches in which Nelson stood nearly alone. This has included procedural issues, including a crusade for a strict interpretation of the legislature’s one-subject-per-bill rule, and the practice of submitting empty “vehicle” bills that are later amended with substantive legislation. Many of his stances in #1 have gone down to overwhelming defeat as well. Still, Nelson has won a few battles, too.
BONUS: He’s been in the movies: Here’s something neither Mike Rounds nor Larry Rhoden can claim: Stace Nelson was featured in an Oscar-nominated movie. As a former NCIS investigator, Nelson was involved in combating sexual abuse. So he testified in the award-winning documentary “The Invisible War” as an expert. When a reporter told him the movie had been nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, Nelson’s response was “Holy Moses!”