Tom Nelson drops out of Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Senate primary, throws support to Mandela Barnes

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Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson speaks during the Democratic U.S. Senate debate at Marquette University's Varsity Theatre in Milwaukee on Sunday, July 17, 2022. It was the first televised debate of Wisconsin's campaign season before the Aug. 9 primary.
Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson speaks during the Democratic U.S. Senate debate at Marquette University's Varsity Theatre in Milwaukee on Sunday, July 17, 2022. It was the first televised debate of Wisconsin's campaign season before the Aug. 9 primary.

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson's long run for the U.S. Senate is over.

Nelson announced Monday that he was ending his Democratic primary campaign and throwing his support to Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

Although Nelson was running fourth in the polls, the move could provide a significant boost for Barnes, who is locked in a tight race with Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, with state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski further behind.

The primary winner will meet Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in November.

"Mandela can now count on me to be on his side every step of the way," Nelson said in a statement. "I urge other Democratic primary voters to also support him now as well."

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Nelson, who lacked the financial resources to forge a breakthrough in the race, said he came to the decision over the weekend and notified Barnes of the move. In a tweet, he acknowledged that his campaign "ran out of money" and said he was "endorsing the one candidate not trying to buy the election."

In a statement, Barnes welcomed the endorsement.

"I deeply respect Tom Nelson’s commitment to the working people in this state and I’m thankful for his endorsement,” Barnes said. “It will take all of us coming together in every corner of this state to beat Ron Johnson.”

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nelson said, "It didn’t look like we were in a strong position," and added that it "made sense to consolidate the progressive vote, which we did."

"Now I think he’s going to be that much stronger going to the primary," Nelson said of Barnes.

With ballots already printed, Nelson's name will still appear before Democratic voters during the Aug. 9 primary.

More: Wisconsin U.S. Senate election updates: California mega-donor gives $1 million to group backing Mandela Barnes

Nelson launched his U.S. Senate bid in October 2020. A tireless campaigner who at one point toured the state's 72 counties in 72 days, Nelson sought to stake out a position as the most progressive candidate in the field.

He embraced the underdog role, trying to follow a similar path that Russ Feingold used in his first race for the U.S. Senate. Among his campaign's building blocks was the book he wrote about how a Fox Valley paper mill was saved through a partnership with government, private industry and the union.

In his statement, Nelson said that he "spent the last twenty-one months and two days doing all I can to beat Ron Johnson. He is an embarrassing, unmitigated disaster for our beloved Badger State."

Nelson said he was proud of the race he ran and the ideas he put forward, including support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and "a national industrial strategy to build good paying jobs in our communities."

Nelson, who raised a little less than $1.4 million according to federal filings, said "unfortunately, money matters way too much in politics and running against two self-funding millionaires proved too much for this pastor's kid."

More: Tom Nelson jabs Alex Lasry on wealth, New York roots during Democratic U.S. Senate forum

In an interview, Nelson said, "we just didn't have the money to get the message out."

He said he understood going into the race that he wouldn't have the resources of other candidates, but said he could leverage the time spent on the campaign trail to gain support.

"We got into this with our eyes wide open," he said.

Lasry and Godlewski are both multi-millionaires. Lasry has poured in more than $12 million on his campaign, while Godlewski has spent nearly $4 million.

More: Bice: New super PAC pours more than $450,000 into Senate race after Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes begs for help

Nelson's withdrawal has added intrigue to the race, with a little more than two weeks before election day.

Last month's Marquette University Law School Poll showed Barnes (25%) and Lasry (21%) running 1-2. Godlewski (9%) and Nelson (7%) trailed significantly.

It's not clear where Nelson's support will go. But it could create an opening for other campaigns to get some more votes out of the Fox Valley, where Nelson was believed to have a solid base of support.

Nelson said if asked, he'll campaign with Barnes.

"He and I had similar messages and we had targeted a similar audience," Nelson said. "I’m going to give him my support, encourage my supporters get behind him."

Nelson said Barnes "is a strong campaigner. He has a compelling story that a lot of people can relate to and he’s able to tell that story well."

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Tom Nelson bows out of Wisconsin Senate race, supports Mandela Barnes