Tom Nelson Might Be the Guy

I had a chance to spend a little time this morning with Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, one of three announced Democrats to take on sitting Sen. Ron Johnson, assuming he runs again.

As the vaccination rate climbs, Nelson feels it’s safe to start venturing out of his garage and basement to make campaign swings around the state. Until now, he says he has been making calls for support and money from his home in Appleton and he’s been doing some quirky videos, reminiscent of the early campaigns of Russ Feingold.

I asked him what distinguishes him from his announced Democratic primary opponents, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski. He didn’t answer directly, but he did talk about not being “a millionaire or a billionaire.” Godlewski is the former and Lasry is the latter (at least by relation), so the point wasn’t lost on me.

He also pointed to his executive and legislative experience. Nelson served as Assembly Majority Leader before he was elected county exec a decade ago. Lasry has never served in public office and Godlewski has two years under her belt in a statewide office, but one that has virtually no power. If your criteria is experience, Nelson has it going away.

But what I think Nelson really has going for him is the argument that he has the best chance of beating Johnson, or whoever the Republicans put up. (My money is on Johnson running for a third term.)

If Democrats just want to win they could do worse than Tom Nelson.

Any Democrat is going to run up big numbers in Milwaukee and Dane counties, but it all could come down to which candidate can squeeze out a few more votes in the Fox Valley and Waukesha. Keep in mind that Joe Biden won Wisconsin by 22,000 votes and Tony Evers beat Scott Walker by only 30,000. Nelson wins in a county that went for Donald Trump by ten points.

Since all the candidates will have essentially the same positions on the issues, if Democrats are still in the mood just to win, they may well pick a guy like Nelson. After all, Biden and Evers were not the darlings of the party activists; they just looked like candidates who could do well against the devil.

If there is one word I would use to describe Nelson after spending some time with him it’s “earnest.” If you talk to him for a few minutes and had to guess what his father did for a living you’d guess Lutheran minister. And you’d be right.

He is a wonk first-class. When I asked him about his work to save a local paper mill (he’s written a book on the subject) he dove quickly into the weeds, describing how he worked all kinds of intricate angles. This is an occupational hazard of all local officials. Just ask me about tax incremental financing some time. I’ll light up the room.

It’s early and this was Nelson’s first campaign swing for the Senate. But he’s run for statewide office before when he won the lieutenant governor nomination back in 2010 by a comfortable margin. (He and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett lost the race to Scott Walker that year.) So, I’m pretty sure he’ll knock off the rust and sharpen his message.

The irony of the primary is that it is the only part of the race in which ability to raise money — or self-fund as both Lasry and Godlewski can, to some extent — matters. This is the only Republican-held Senate seat up next year in a state where Donald Trump didn’t win. And with the Democrats holding a Senate margin by virtue of the Vice President’s tie-breaker, you can bet that national money will pour in for whoever is the nominee.

So, it’s possible that Nelson is both the most promising general election candidate and also the primary candidate who will have the least money. But if he’s got just enough cash to get his message out, and if Democrats just want to win, Nelson may have a chance.

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