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Kanawha delegate announces Senate run

Photo by Steven Allen Adams Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, announces his run for the 17th state Senate district surrounded by family, friends and fellow lawmakers.

CHARLESTON — The first in what is expected to be several Republican candidates announced his intention to run for the West Virginia Senate.

Eric Nelson, a Republican representing the 35th District in the House of Delegates, announced his 2020 candidacy Tuesday for the Senate’s 17th District at an event outside the western entrance of the Capitol.

“It’s never too soon to look at a serious role like this one,” Nelson said, surrounded by his family and supporters, including former Senate president Bill Cole. “It’s time to step up.”

Nelson was first elected in 2010 and served as the chairman of the House Finance Committee since the Republicans took the majority in the House in 2014. When former House Speaker Tim Armstead declined to seek re-election for a chance at a seat on the state Supreme Court, Nelson asked to be considered as the speaker.

After four rounds of voting, the House Republican Caucus on Aug. 18 chose Delegate Roger Hanshaw as the interim speaker. During the Dec. 2 vote for a permanent speaker, Nelson challenged Hanshaw again, lost a second time and started the 2019 legislative session as the chairman of the House Banking and Insurance Committee.

Nelson could eventually challenge state Sen. Corey Palumbo, the Democrat who has held the seat since 2009. If he runs for re-election, Palumbo could serve a fourth term, though the minority chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee told WV MetroNews Talkline Tuesday that he was leaning toward not running again.

Nelson summed up his platform as three key things: accountability, integrity and commitment.

“I’m committed, as I’ve always been, and really re-energized,” Nelson said. “I’m committed to getting out and working my tail off with many of you all.”

The 17th District encompasses parts of Charleston, southern and eastern Kanawha County.

Palumbo, as an incumbent in 2016, had no problem fending off a challenge from former Kanawha County Delegate Chris Stansbury. Palumbo defeated Stansbury 55 percent to 45 percent with 41,126 people voting in that race.

In 2018, 6,000 fewer people voted in the 17th District race, but state Sen. Tom Takubo, who shares the district with Palumbo, defeated Terrell Ellis 52 percent to 48 percent.

In 2020, half of the Senate, 17 members, will be up for re-election. These include 11 Republicans and six Democrats. Two seats, including Palumbo’s if he doesn’t run again and the 7th District in Logan and Boone counties where state Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, was appointed when former Sen. Richard Ojeda resigned at the start of session, could be vulnerable.

The state Senate first went to Republican control after the 2014 election, which saw Republicans take the statehouse for the first time in over 80 years. On the Senate side, the body was tied with 17 Republicans and 17 Democrats until former Wyoming County Sen. Daniel Hall switched parties, giving the Republicans an 18-seat majority going into the 2015 legislative session.

In 2016, the Republicans grew their majority in the Senate from 18 to 22 members, but 2018 saw that majority decrease to 20, including the defeat of former Senate majority leader Ryan Ferns to former U.S. Attorney Bill Ihlenfeld.

And neither do all 20 Republicans vote in lockstep. During the debate on Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, Sens. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, often voted with the Democratic minority to strip the bill of charter schools and education savings accounts, decreasing the caucus’ power to 18 votes. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, hopes that Nelson’s race is the first step in reversing the slow loss of Republican senators.

“This signifies the progress in West Virginia,” Carmichael said. “(Nelson) is not afraid of taking on the big issues. He will call out the right issues at the right time for the people of West Virginia. It’s exciting when you have someone like this that you can get behind and support and know that they will do the right thing for the people of West Virginia.”

The push for various reforms in SB 451, including charters, education savings accounts, as well as other initiatives in the original form of the bill that were considered retaliation against teachers, could become a factor in the 2020 elections. Many teacher union members take credit for the defeat of Ferns. With Carmichael and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, up for re-election, some teachers hope to repeat that victory.

Carmichael doesn’t see it that way. He believes the voters in 2020 will see all the progress that’s been made since 2014 in the economy and the health of the state’s budget and make the right decision.

“This is an exciting time to be in our state,” Carmichael said. “We’re on the march. We’re on the move. There’s progress. It feels good. There’s opportunity. The state Senate is very happy to have a candidate…that can lead Kanawha County and the other people around this state towards the progress and prosperity that’s so vital for our state.”

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