Mike McCabe (copy)

An independent candidate running as a Democrat in Wisconsin's gubernatorial primary says the state Democratic Party is treating him unfairly, drawing comparisons to the Democratic National Committee's treatment of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign.

For Mike McCabe, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has a simple message: If you want the resources, join the club and pay your dues. 

McCabe, a political activist who prides himself on never having belonged to a political party, entered the Democratic primary for governor in September. He said in an interview last month that once he decided to run for governor, he chose the path that would allow him to make the biggest difference, rather than running as an independent or third-party candidate. 

In doing so, he emulated Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who ran as a Democrat in the 2016 presidential primary. Had Sanders not run as a Democrat, McCabe argued, he likely would have fared about as well as Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who earned 1 percent of the popular vote.

In a news release sent on Wednesday, McCabe campaign manager Christine Welcher said the state Democratic Party had first ignored, then refused requests from the campaign to access the party's statewide voter and member lists.

Welcher said McCabe believes the lists should be offered to candidates at no charge, but his offer to purchase them was also declined.

"Privately, party leaders clearly are playing favorites. By denying help to one that is given to the others, they are putting their thumb on the scale, which is exactly what they promised not to do," Welcher said in a statement. "DPW is making the same mistake the DNC made in 2016. They apparently haven’t learned a thing from what just happened last year."

Welcher was referring to leaked emails that showed Democratic National Committee staffers appearing to give Hillary Clinton preferential treatment over Sanders during the primary.

According to DPW bylaws, candidates who are members of the state party may purchase membership and voter lists. This would prevent, for instance, "spoiler candidates" like the ones who ran in the 2011 recall elections from accessing the lists.

"All other requests made by individuals, candidates, groups, organizations, or political committees not specified above, must be approved by the State Chair, subject to review by the Executive Committee," according to the rules.

DPW spokeswoman Melanie Conklin confirmed that McCabe, as stated in his news release, is not a member of the party.

"We are providing the same services to all Democratic primary candidates for governor who are members of the party," Conklin said in a tweeted statement.

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An individual membership costs $25 per year.

McCabe ran as a Democrat once before, against now-Congressman Mark Pocan for the state Assembly in 1998, but also worked for three Republican legislators. The former head of the campaign finance watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, McCabe founded the nonprofit group Blue Jean Nation in 2015 with the goal of restructuring the priorities of the country's political parties.

In an email, McCabe said he is "not sure how they define being a member of the party," adding that he filed a declaration of candidacy as a Democrat and formed a campaign committee as a Democrat.

McCabe said his campaign was "given the run-around for almost six weeks" before his request was rejected.

"Eventually we had to move on and get lists from elsewhere. Now apparently they are saying we can buy them if I first pay a $25 membership fee," McCabe said. "This is disappointing but not exactly surprising. You'd think they would have learned something from 2016. Apparently not. I'm not going to lose sleep over it. Just another hill to climb."

The other Democratic candidates in the field include Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, Eau Claire state Rep. Dana Wachs, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Alma state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn and political newcomer Bob Harlow.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.