While that money helped Nelson buy billboards and other fliers, Zickafoose gives him credit for his ability to campaign and connect. She said he revved up younger voters, knocking on doors and speaking with residents for days on end.
She also thought the growing animosity for President Barack Obama and Democrats on a national level hurt Barker's chances. Conrad Lucas, head of the West Virginia Republican Party, agreed.
He commended Nelson's grassroots campaign but thinks the GOP spending "thousands" on fliers sent throughout southern West Virginia might have played a factor.
Nelson said he didn't receive a great deal of help from the state party: he guessed the 7-1 registration advantage of Democrats in his district didn't make him a "safe bet" for investment. Victory came down to the time he spent meeting and speaking with voters.
"I was owl shift most of the campaign, which is the night shift," Nelson said of his mine job. "So I would work all night long and sleep for three hours or four hours, then get up and campaign all day long, for a long time."
It worked. Nelson won by more than 1,500 votes. Nelson, Lucas and Zickafoose all said as the campaign drew to a close, they knew the young Republican would win.
In his first session Nelson is proud to have sponsored a bill addressing selenium levels in public waterways, and he's happy to see a little movement on some coal measures.
There have been some bumps in the road. During a recent committee meeting Nelson said he was the biggest coal man in the Legislature.
In a later meeting House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, a longtime representative of the United Mine Workers union, chided Nelson at the notion, with the committee chuckling as he spoke.
"I'm only 26," Nelson said. "Obviously Mr. Caputo's been involved in the coal industry for longer than I've been born. But I will tell you that there's no one in this Legislature with a bigger heart for the coalfields than myself. And for what we do. It's in my blood."
'Answer the call'
Flying also is in Nelson's blood, and he'll get his chance to continue to do so with the West Virginia Air National Guard. But he wasn't eager to talk about it.
"It's hard for me to mix military and political details. When I put my uniform on, I'm a completely different person," Nelson said.
He joined the Air National Guard to learn how to fly the C-130 transport plane. Nelson won't be piloting the massive, military-green aircraft around Yeager Airport any time soon, but it's a goal.
When he leaves Saturday, he's going off to train, said Adj. Gen. James Hoyer.
"This is his required training at a military installation to meet his requirements to become an officer," Hoyer said.
Nelson didn't want to talk about where he was going but said he wouldn't be in harm's way.
Hoyer has met with Nelson the lawmaker several times and said he's a sharp young man ready to make an impact in West Virginia. He's confident his prior military experience will help him get in the swing of things once training begins.
Nelson is not alone in dropping everything to serve, Hoyer added.
"There are 6,500 other men and women in the West Virginia Air National Guard, and all of them at some point in their military careers have encountered a situation where it wasn't convenient for them or their families," Hoyer said.
Sen. Erik Wells is another lawmaker who serves in the military. The Kanawha County Democrat is also a public affairs officer in the Navy Reserve and has spent months away from home fulfilling that obligation.
The duty is tough on everyone, regardless of what their other job is, Wells said.
During past legislative sessions, he hasn't been able to participate in some of the activities to the same extent as other members. While serving in Hawaii for seven months in 2007, he was still able to answer some calls and emails from constituents. It was harder to do so during his months in Kabul, Afghanistan.
"When I was in Afghanistan, I was still able to vote for the Senate president because my orders were still less than 270 days," Wells said.
With Nelson leaving for a shorter amount of time, Wells thought it would be easier for him to transition back into legislative life. Communication is key to making that transition successful.
Wells suggested he stay in touch with other legislators, read the news and monitor the Internet when possible to keep up with what's going on.
Nelson informed fellow delegates of his obligation during a recent floor session. He thanked them for their help, told them he wished he didn't have to leave during the session and said he appreciated his time in the Legislature.
He can't say when, but Nelson plans to be back to Boone County sometime in May. He said he's already looking forward to next session.