Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson embraces underdog role in his 2022 run for U.S. Senate

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson sits in his garage, which is the backdrop for several of his off-beat, online ads in his campaign for U.S. Senate. He is shown at his home Wednesday, April 14, 2021 in Appleton, Wis.

APPLETON – Three decades ago, Russ Feingold painted campaign promises on his garage door as part of his underdog effort to topple better-funded Democratic candidates in the race for U.S. Senate.

Feingold went on to win in 1992 and serve three terms.

Now, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate next year, is going one better.

Forget the door.

Nelson is using his garage to cut bare-bones online ads to raise money and enhance his profile.

“It seems like everyone who’s jumping in is self-funding, and I don’t have that kind of money, so I’m having this little garage sale,” Nelson said in the first spot, as he started rummaging through items, like an old painting, his son’s toy dinosaurs and a Feingold biography.

Whether any of this will work is obviously up to the voters, who won’t even go to the polls in this primary until August, 2022.

Nelson will face others who are expected to amass formidable campaign hauls — state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who just got in the race, and Alex Lasry, on leave from his executive job with the Milwaukee Bucks. More candidates may jump in.

In the first quarter, Lasry raised $1.1 million, while Nelson raised $263,843. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson hasn’t announced if he’ll run for a third term.

Nobody has been in this race longer than Nelson, who announced his candidacy in October 2020.

On the issues, Nelson is running to the left, backing Medicare for all. He’s also leaning into his political experience as a former legislator who since 2011 has been the top executive in a county that is politically purple.

And for Nelson, a campaign building block is the book he wrote about how a Fox Valley paper mill was saved through a partnership with government, private industry and the union.

Nelson sat recently for an interview in the garage of his two-story home in Appleton.

He was dressed for winter. Snow flurries were floating down outside.

“This is a wide-open race,” he said. “We’re at the starting point.”

By entering early, Nelson said, “we gave ourselves over 24 months to build an infrastructure, build a grassroots campaign that is going to position us for victory.”

With the pandemic, Nelson hasn’t yet hit the road. But when he does, he plans to visit “every corner of the state.”

He has hired a campaign manager, Irene Lin. But because of the pandemic they’ve yet to meet in person and have been operating via Zoom and phone.

“At some point, Tom and I will be in the same room safely,” Lin said.

He is a methodical campaigner.

In his first race for the Assembly in 2004, he said he visited 22,000 homes. With Democrats in control of the Assembly in 2008, he was elected Majority Leader after he traveled 1,600 miles over a long weekend to visit individual members and ask them for their votes.

Nelson said he thinks Johnson will run for re-election and is eager to take him on. Nelson’s campaign has gone after Johnson in billboards, including one placed in senator’s hometown of Oshkosh, urging him to resign his seat.

“Ron Johnson is the new Donald Trump,” Nelson said.