Tom Nelson wants to bridge Wisconsin’s rural-urban divide

The Outagamie County executive is one of 12 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in Wisconsin's Senate race

If Tom Nelson seems like a dark-horse candidate in Wisconsin’s crowded Democratic Senate primary, the 45-year-old Outagamie County executive argues that he has defied expectations before.

Notwithstanding some losses, Nelson boasts that his political trajectory over nearly two decades has been animated by a series of upset victories in GOP strongholds, including his first bid for public office in 2004, when he won election to Wisconsin’s state Assembly by unseating a Republican incumbent in a predominantly rural district of the state.

“This race is for all the marbles, and the number one question I get when I move around the state,” Nelson said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, “is who can beat Ron Johnson” — the Republican senator who is among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents in the 2022 midterms.

Johnson, a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump who has drawn controversy for pushing conspiracy theories on election fraud and the pandemic, has yet to announce if he will seek reelection. But that hasn’t discouraged Nelson from aggressively attacking the two-term GOP senator. In February, Nelson erected a billboard in Johnson’s hometown of Oshkosh accusing Johnson of “treason.” 

“Resign now or I will defeat you in 2022,” Nelson tweeted at the time.

Senate candidate Tom Nelson speaks at a campaign event (Courtesy)

The Senate hopeful, who is one of a dozen Democratic primary candidates, believes there is no question that his track record of defeating Republicans puts him in the strongest position for the general election. “That’s basically my mic-drop pitch,” he said, “and I don’t know a single person I’ve called on the phone or an audience I’ve spoken to that doesn’t start nodding.”

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a progressive attorney and Jewish community leader in Madison who is supporting Nelson’s primary bid, says he is convinced. 

“Most people think of us as two states: a red state and a blue state, and never the twain shall mix,” he told JI via email. “Tom Nelson is a Democratic county executive with great values, who has been elected and reelected in a large, generally Republican-voting county. That is the kind of candidate that can win statewide.”

Still, whatever his chances are in the general election, Nelson must first prove himself in the August primary against a number of top contenders, including the first-term Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a progressive stalwart with a national profile who has already picked up several major endorsements from Democratic leaders.

Barnes, who at this stage is widely viewed as the frontrunner, has led the field by double digits in the limited publicly available polling on the race. Nelson, for his part, has pulled in single-digit support, placing either second or third in statistical ties with two well-funded opponents, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski

Nelson has raised nearly $730,000 since January, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission.

Despite some obstacles, the county executive, who announced his candidacy in October 2020, expects to gain ground as the primary heats up in the coming months. “This is exactly where you want to be in a campaign like this,” he told JI. “This is a truly grassroots campaign.”

Nelson, who describes himself as an “economic populist,” said his political views were instilled in him while growing up in Little Chute, a small town in northeast Wisconsin that sits within his current county. 

“It was a blue-collar neighborhood, so all the dads worked at paper mills,” said Nelson, the author of One Day Stronger: How One Union Local Saved a Mill and Changed an Industry — and What It Means for American Manufacturing, published in March. “My dad, as I like to say, wore the white collar. He was a Lutheran pastor.”

Nelson is a graduate of Carleton College and Princeton University, where he received a master’s in public administration in 2004, the same year he mounted his Assembly bid. “I was the only Democrat to unseat a Republican incumbent,” he says of that race, “and I did in a Republican year.” 

During his time in the legislature, Nelson served as majority leader of the Wisconsin state Assembly. He ran a failed bid for lieutenant governor in 2010 and the following year won election as Outagamie County executive, where he oversees a number of local departments. Nelson ran against Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) in Wisconsin’s heavily Republican 8th Congressional District in 2016 and lost by a wide margin..

His main policy areas, he says, are economic security, health security and climate change. Nelson, a 2020 delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and he advocates for a “blue-green coalition” that will unite the labor and environmental movements. 

In conversation, Nelson spoke of a need to “rein in corporate America” and “toss out the bad trade deals” that are “sending Wisconsin jobs overseas.”

“I don’t run away from my core,” he claimed. “I stick to my values, and I stick to my guns.”

“We’ve had a failed economic foreign policy for years now, and it’s really hurt places like Wisconsin,” he said. “My old neighborhood has really borne the brunt. There might be one or two paper workers left.”

In many ways, “Nelson is trying to outflank Barnes on the left,” Paul Nolette, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University, told JI. “He’s setting himself up as sort of being the left alternative.”

So far, Nelson has succeeded in some areas. Last month, for instance, he received an endorsement from the Wisconsin chapter of the Sunrise Movement, the influential climate advocacy group. 

It remains to be seen if Nelson will pick up support from other progressive groups with national profiles, but he is confident that the left will coalesce around his candidacy in the same way he envisions voters from all parts of the ideological spectrum uniting behind him. 

“I don’t run away from my core,” he claimed. “I stick to my values, and I stick to my guns.”

Nelson is among four candidates in the Wisconsin primary who have earned endorsements from J Street, the left-leaning Israel advocacy group — Barnes, Lasry and Godlewski have also gotten the group’s backing. He says his positions on Middle East foreign policy issues are “pretty consistent with” J Street. 

For example, Nelson supports legislation that would grant $1 billion in supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system that is currently stalled in the Senate. “We have security obligations that we have to fulfill,” he said. “Right now, we have to go above and beyond and show our support for our allies.”

Notably, Nelson says he is in favor of a new policy objective for which J Street has only recently begun advocating. He supports “end-use restrictions” on U.S. aid to Israel that would ensure the Jewish state uses such assistance only for “legitimate security purposes,” as J Street has put it.

Nelson is the only Wisconsin Senate candidate among those backed by J Street to explicitly support end-use restrictions, which the group distinguishes from conditioning aid to Israel. 

Nelson, who has never visited Israel, said his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extends from his own religious background.

Senate candidate Tom Nelson speaks to a supporter (Courtesy)

“Religion is a very big part of our life,” Nelson told JI. “I read Bible stories to my kids. ‘Fiery furnace.’ They love that stuff. I have a personal appreciation of the significance of the Holy Land and how we have an obligation, consistent in the Judeo-Christian tradition, to do all we can to achieve peace in the Holy Land. It’s very important to me.”

He also says he opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, “particularly for” what he described as its “antisemitic overtones.”

In the Senate, Nelson said he would push to pass laws that are “tough on hate crimes” while also speaking out against antisemitic hatred.

“I’m not sure how to say this as a leader, but — ” he continued, pausing for a moment as he made his way to a politically sensitive observation. “If you see these pockets of fascism popping up around the country, it is very scary.”

“Even driving here in Wisconsin, we’re about 1,000 miles away from the Deep South, and you have Confederate flags,” Nelson told JI. “I mean, it’s just bizarre. And, you know, statistically speaking, there are probably a lot of families that have those flags out there that have ancestors that probably fought in the Civil War on our side.” 

He laughed. “It’s a big concern.”

Still, Nelson emphasizes that his campaign is largely premised on uniting what he characterizes as an illusory divide between rural red-leaning portions of the state and deep-blue urban enclaves. 

“If there’s a lack of broadband access in Jackson County or Ashland County,” he said, “you could have a family of limited means in Madison or La Crosse who can’t afford to pay for broadband, and so they don’t have access to the internet either.”

“We have a lot more in common than we don’t.”

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