The Underdog: Tom Nelson’s longshot race for U.S. Senate

By: - January 18, 2022 6:30 am
Tom Nelson in his "garage sale" campaign video |

U.S. Senate candidate Tom Nelson in his “garage sale” campaign video | Screenshot from Nelson for Wisconsin campaign

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s announcement that he is running for a third term hardly came as a surprise to state Democrats, who have already been campaigning against the senator for months. None of them has been at it longer than Tom Nelson. The Outagamie County executive launched his campaign 15 months ago, attempting an old-fashioned legwork and grassroots campaign in the age of COVID-19.

“This is a classic populist, grassroots campaign that Wisconsinites love — like Bill Proxmire, like Russ Feingold,” Nelson says.

A recent social media campaign ad, filmed in Nelson’s garage, is an homage to former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold’s successful 1992  little-guy campaign, in which Feingold ran on a “garage door pledge” posted on the garage door of his ranch-style house in Middleton. That was when Feingold first ran and won the seat Johnson later captured from him. In Nelson’s ad, he is holding a garage sale to finance his run for the U.S. Senate selling, among other items, a book by Feingold.

Nelson, who served for six years in the state Assembly, including as Democratic majority leader in the 2009-10 session, is vocally pro-labor and represents working class constituents in a district that voted for Trump twice. Many of those Trump voters also supported Bernie Sanders, he says.

Nelson trails his Democratic primary opponents when it comes to statewide name recognition, endorsements and fundraising. He has a lot of ground to make up with less than eight months to go until the primary election. 

It’s a tough election year to be the little guy. The campaign for Johnson’s seat, which could decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, is going to be extremely expensive. “The Senate race is likely to break all records in Wisconsin,” says Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “So, too, will the primary.”

“Portraying himself as a scrappy underdog with potential to beat the wealthy incumbent is probably his best and maybe only path to success,” says University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden. “There needs to be a shakeup among the frontrunners for Nelson to get more serious consideration from Democratic primary voters. As long as (Lt. Gov.) Mandela Barnes continues to lead in fundraising, endorsements, and media attention, it will be difficult for the Nelson campaign to get traction. A significant stumble by Barnes might be necessary for him to have a breakthrough moment that makes him viable.”


In January, the Barnes campaign released a poll that showed Barnes had the support of 40% of likely Democratic voters, compared with about 8% for Nelson, 10% for State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and 11% for Milwaukee Bucks CEO Alex Lasry.

Fundraising reports covering July through September show Nelson raised $223,000, most of it in small donations of less than $200 from inside the state of Wisconsin. He finished the quarter with about $418,000 in the bank. Barnes, meanwhile, brought in $1.1 million and had $711,000 in the bank at the end of September. Godlewski and Lasry each brought in more than $1 million in the July-September quarter — mostly because of large contributions they made to their own campaigns. (The next filing deadline, for the candidates’ year-end report, is Jan. 31.) 

U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have both endorsed Barnes, and national groups are coming to Wisconsin to campaign for him. When Johnson declared his re-election bid on Jan. 8 — after raising nearly $1 million before he even announced — Barnes reported a surge of donations adding up to $150,000 from 5,000 donors within three days.

Nelson says he sees an advantage in being the underdog. “What I like about my three [primary] opponents is they all think that they are the leader,” he says. “So they’re having these very conservative like-a-general-election campaigns. I know that I’m not leading, alright. I know that I’m a county executive with 25% name recognition. So I get to run the campaign that I want to run. I’m not gonna owe anybody anything. So I’m talking about the issues I’m passionate about.”

Among the issues Nelson is most passionate about is labor. As he was launching his Senate campaign, he wrote a book, “One Day Stronger,” about the battle to save an Appleton paper mill and how union workers were central to the effort to rescue it from being shut down. It’s a story, he told the Examiner’s Erik Gunn, that shows “sometimes the little guy, sometimes the underdog wins.”

It was hard to get some people on board with the union effort to save the mill back in 2017, Nelson says, after labor had taken a drubbing in Wisconsin. The passage of Act 10 in 2011, ending most collective bargaining rights for public employees was followed by Wisconsin’s transformation into a Right to Work state in 2015. “Labor was just completely demoralized,” Nelson says. “It was like no, no, no, we can do this. Let’s fight back. And sure enough, we won.”

That was the beginning of a labor comeback, as Nelson sees it, that included the Democrats’ sweep of statewide elections in 2018, the same year they took back the House of Representatives, followed by pro-labor President Joe Biden’s win in 2020. 

Democrats, including Biden and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who are becoming more vocal proponents of unions, are “just catching up with the people,” says Nelson, who points to polls showing most Americans support organized labor. He counts Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, and a rising star of the newly militant national labor movement, as a friend.

“(Former Gov. Scott) Walker was very, very effective with pitting private sector and public sector labor against one another,” Nelson says. “Now, 10 years later, we all realize, you know, that we’re all in the same boat. And it’s not private versus public. It’s about working people.”

Progressive legislator

Nelson, who grew up in Little Chute, Wisconsin, the son of a Lutheran minister, served as the 5th Assembly district’s representative from 2005 to 2011, holding onto the seat despite being a top target for Republicans. Democrats elected him majority leader for the 2009-10 session, and a long list of former Assembly colleagues have endorsed him, including former Reps. Gary Sherman (D-Bayfield), ​​Jim Soletski (D-Green Bay), former Assistant Minority Leader Donna Seidel (D-Wausau) and Nick Milroy (D-Superior).

Fellow legislators call him extremely hard working and note his health care advocacy. Nelson fought to preserve SeniorCare, Wisconsin’s affordable prescription drug program for the elderly, organizing a grassroots effort to save the program when the state did not receive a federal waiver to continue the program in 2007. He successfully lobbied Wisconsin’s two Democratic Senators at the time, Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, who wrote an amendment to an emergency spending bill for the Iraq War that renewed the waiver. 

He also sponsored legislation to try to save a foundering paper mill back in 2008 that employed 600 people in Kimberly, Wisconsin. That effort was less successful than his later advocacy for Appleton Coated. The legislation was never taken up and the Kimberly-NewPage mill was demolished.

“Tom has always put working families first since his time in the Assembly,” Seidel said in a statement endorsing Nelson. “He is passionate about reviving Wisconsin manufacturing, fighting unfair trade agreements and will fight for Wausau in the U.S. Senate.”

In 2010, Nelson announced he was leaving the Assembly to run for lieutenant governor when Tom Barrett challenged then-Gov. Scott Walker in a recall effort that ultimately failed. Nelson won the Democratic primary, then lost the general election to Republican Rebecca Kleefisch. In April 2011, he defeated former Republican State Treasurer Jack Voight and became Outagamie county executive, winning re-election in 2015 and 2019. 

“As Ron Johnson continues to flounder, I am confident in Tom’s people-first leadership that will uplift Wisconsin’s economy, schools and industries throughout this pandemic and beyond it,” Outagamie County Board Supervisor Cindy Fallona said when she endorsed Nelson.

Nelson says Johnson is “out of touch” with Wisconsinites and points to the senator’s opposition to unemployment insurance and pandemic relief funds. He “doesn’t know how it is to live paycheck to paycheck,” Nelson says.

The problem with Johnson, a millionaire who paid only $2,105 in income taxes in 2017, Nelson says, is not that he’s rich. Lots of people aspire to be rich, he concedes. “But look how he did it. He’s changing the law for his benefit. That’s wrong.”

In 2017, Johnson cast the deciding vote for Trump’s tax cut that skewed heavily to the very wealthy. He also lobbied for and won a special provision that benefited his own family business. The Guardian reported that Johnson began the process of selling a company he partly owned in February 2018, just months after he insisted the Trump Administration change a portion of the tax law in a way that ultimately benefited the sale.

Plus, Johnson hasn’t supported Wisconsin manufacturing, Nelson says. He recalls a meeting with Johnson, who visited Outagamie County a couple of years ago, when Nelson was involved in the fight to save the Appleton Coated paper mill.  “Our mantra and our mission in my office is, ‘We help people,’ ” Johnson told the group.

Nelson says he raised his hand and asked whether Johnson would help save Wisconsin’s struggling paper mills. “And he said, ‘Well, you know, paper mills are kind of like the buggy whip — 100 years ago the government wasn’t bailing them out,’ ” Nelson says. Johnson wasn’t interested in helping. 

Appealing to Sanders/Trump voters

Sitting at home in his family room in Appleton after testing positive for COVID-19, Nelson has not been able to do much of the old-fashioned, person-to-person politics practiced by his role model the late U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, a progressive populist who championed the interests of Wisconsin workers and farmers, and consumer protections, and who fought passionately against wasteful government spending. 

But campaigning during the pandemic has been a benefit when it comes to building social networks online, Nelson says. “During the summer, for example, we had about 30-35 college students all across the country, all across the world, that were participating, helping, doing research, writing the digital, all that stuff.”

A commercial videographer has been making Nelson’s ads for a discount rate, he says. “He comes up here from Milwaukee for a grand, he shoots these ads, produces and cuts it for us. We throw it up online and in the first hour we’ve made the money back and we’ve got a good message. So it’s a fun campaign.”

Currently, the campaign has three paid staff and “a good volunteer base” throughout the state, he says.  

Nelson acknowledges that his campaign looks different from Feingold’s 1992 victory over better-financed opponents whose mud-slinging turned off voters. “That was 30 years ago. Of course, it’s not apples to apples,” he says. “But a lot of the themes carry over.”

One of those themes is an appeal to independent-minded Wisconsin voters who are suspicious of slick, establishment politicians.

The way Nelson explains it, the voters who have re-elected him time and again in a red Wisconsin county are not red or blue or purple.  “It’s more an absence of color,” he says.

“I think up here, the way I look at it, there’s a lot of what I call default Republicans, which is they’re open to voting for a Democrat, but we have the burden of proof. We have the burden of proof to give them a compelling reason to vote for us. All things equal, they vote for the Republican most of the time, but if you can say, ‘Look, there are complex problems out there. And we need some solutions. We can do better with health care. We can do better with the environment. We can get better schools. OK, now you’re talking my language.”

Whether he’s talking about improvements at the county level or Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, Nelson often hears from his constituents, “Oh, that’s gonna cost a lot of money.”

He has a ready answer: “Hey, look, I’m a county executive and I’ve been elected three times. I’ve got a declining tax rate, triple A bond rating, and fully fund all of our services and have been able to give my employees a raise every single year. Next question.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.