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Sprawling gubernatorial field has some Democratic donors sitting out the primary

As a crowded Democratic field for governor begins to collect signatures, some top donors are waiting until after the primary to get involved.

Mary Lang Sollinger has been a prolific Democratic fundraiser over the years, connecting candidates and donors at her Madison home on Lake Mendota and at national events in Washington, D.C.

Leading up to the 2008 presidential primary she organized a dozen events for Barack Obama. In Wisconsin’s 2014 gubernatorial race she introduced Mary Burke to her national fundraising network and along with her husband she gave the eventual Democratic nominee $2,000 almost a year before the primary.

This year, the top Democratic gubernatorial candidates have asked Sollinger for help raising money, but she has told them that she’s staying out of the race, at least until the nomination process sorts itself out in mid-August.

“We have such a full house of candidates, it’s very difficult to pick one out,” Sollinger said in an interview. “This is the time to get new ideas and do new things. I’ve told all of them, once it’s the day after the primary, I’m in there with both feet.”

Sollinger isn’t the only major Democratic donor on the sidelines because of the sprawling gubernatorial field.

A Wisconsin State Journal analysis found only 14 of the top 50 donors to state Democratic candidates and legislative campaign committees over the past decade had given a total of $49,000 to their party’s gubernatorial candidates last year. (Though that excludes Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, one of the 50 and a gubernatorial candidate who gave himself $268,000 last year.)

The number is down from four years ago, when 24 of those top donors gave Burke, a Madison School Board member, $185,300 in 2013 alone, the year before the election. Burke was able to contribute millions of her own wealth to the campaign, but had only nominal competition in the primary.

Meanwhile, 33 of the top 50 Republican donors over the past decade gave Gov. Scott Walker more than $600,000 through this past December, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Voters uncertain as well

Several Democratic operatives and donors have acknowledged that there are some among the donor ranks who, like Sollinger, are staying out of the gubernatorial primary. But they emphasized it has more to do with the number of candidates than the quality.

The indecision among some Democratic donors reflects broader uncertainty among voters about the candidates — 44 percent of respondents to the latest Marquette Law School Poll said they didn’t know whom to support.

“I don’t think these donors, just like your friends and family at the dinner table, have quite figured out who has the best chance of winning,” said Patrick Guarasci, a former Democratic National Committee finance committee vice-chairman and fundraiser for Gov. Jim Doyle.

Hesitation among top donors leaves a lot of resources on the sidelines that could otherwise pay for advertising to build name recognition or counter advertising from the Walker campaign.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning acknowledged some donors are not committing resources to the candidates like they did for Burke in 2014, though Laning said that reflects the different environment where more than a dozen candidates could end up on the primary ballot. In 2014, party leaders were pulling for Burke early in the process. Laning also anticipates donors are poised to back the nominee, whoever it is, starting in August.

“Our donors really like to evaluate and assess where their money is going and making sure they’re making a wise decision,” Laning said. “Certainly when you have a lot of people all trying to fundraise, there’s limited dollars out there and you’re dividing those dollars. I do think it adds challenges, but I think our candidates are rising to the occasion. We’re really seeing that it’s about a grassroots effort.”

Tom Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire who is pumping millions of dollars into the state to encourage young people to vote for Democrats in November, said in an interview the state’s late primary and lack of a gubernatorial frontrunner present some challenges.

“That’s going to be tough on Democrats in a lot of ways because it doesn’t give whoever wins the primary much time to pivot and raise money and build an operation,” Steyer said.

9 major candidates

The Democratic field includes nine candidates who had hired campaign staff as of the beginning of this year: Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee-area businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell, former Rep. Kelda Roys of Madison, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and Wachs.

The Marquette poll found Evers had 18 percent support followed by Soglin with 9 percent, though they also had the most name recognition among the candidates.

Six other candidates also have signaled plans to run, including Josh Pade, a 38-year-old Kenosha native and senior analyst for J. Crew who moved back to Wisconsin a year ago and announced last week he was joining the fray. Two candidates who previously said they were running, Bob Harlow and Michele Doolan, dropped out in recent weeks and endorsed Flynn.

The top nine candidates all said in response to questions from the Wisconsin State Journal they welcome the large field and aren’t calling for any competitors to drop out. None gave an indication that fundraising has been a challenge — some even said it’s going strong — though none was willing to share first-quarter fundraising figures.

Wisconsin doesn’t have quarterly campaign finance reports for state candidates, so voters won’t be able to assess the fundraising strength of each campaign until mid-year reports come out in July — about a month before the primary.

“With so many people in the field, forums and public events are getting covered, which is great,” said McCabe campaign manager Christine Welcher. “However, individual candidates aren’t getting much attention, which is causing the lower rates of recognition as shown by the Marquette poll.”

The period for collecting the 2,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot begins Sunday and ends June 1, the same weekend as the state party convention in Oshkosh.

Gary Goyke, a lobbyist and former Democratic lawmaker, said some of the donors who are waiting might make a decision after the convention, where in previous years candidates have had opportunities to court party activists, deliver a major speech and participate in a straw poll. Laning said no decisions have been made yet on a format for candidates to speak at the convention or on party-sponsored candidate debates.

Goyke said the benefit of a larger field is it has been harder for Walker to target one candidate.

“I don’t see it as a disadvantage to have a wide array of candidates,” Goyke said. “If anything, it has produced more enthusiasm and more interest.”

Still, there are limited resources, and with so many campaigns vying for them, the field will start to separate into those who have the ability to advertise and those who don’t, said Alex Lasry, a Milwaukee Bucks executive and Democratic donor who last week endorsed Wachs.

Lasry said he’s aware of some donors who are waiting out the primary, but he hasn’t seen that from “a ton of people.”

“It’s still really early,” Lasry said. “There is probably going to start to be some separation at the top, probably in the next month or two. Money is going to dry up and support is going to have to consolidate a little bit.”

Tensions emerging

Walker campaign spokesman Austin Altenburg pointed to a handful of episodes in recent months where candidates have started to jab at each other as a sign of the growing competitiveness for available resources.

Roys, for example, recently knocked baby boomers — which describes seven of the candidates — as a generation that doesn’t “fully appreciate” the issues facing young voters. Mitchell has called out McCabe for not pledging to support the eventual nominee. Wachs tweeted that Evers endangered transgender students by allowing school districts to set bathroom policy. Soglin told the Juneau County Star-Times that Evers had “peaked” as a candidate. And in a recent interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Gronik called his eight opponents “different flavors of vanilla.”

“Democrats in the wide-open field for governor are literally fighting for attention because there’s no breakout candidate to rally around, but it’s certain that whomever emerges will be well-funded,” Altenburg said, referring to outside liberal groups that plan to spend heavily on the race.

Campaigns will matter

Former state Sen. Tim Cullen, one of the top 50 donors to state Democratic candidates, gave $10,000 to Burke in 2013, but in 2017 only gave $100 to Evers, though he hasn’t endorsed yet.

He said as the race unfolds over the coming weeks the amount of money raised will be one important factor, but who puts together the best campaign with the most volunteers knocking on doors will also matter.

Five of the campaigns shared updates on how many paid staff they have with Flynn (6), McCabe (6), Mitchell (5) and Roys (4) adding staff since December and Wachs reducing his staff from 10 to eight. Evers, Gronik, Soglin and Vinehout didn’t provide an exact count.

The field could also start to separate as candidates say things that get negative or positive media coverage, Cullen said.

Roys, for example, has seen her Twitter and Facebook followers increase 52 percent since January, moving her from sixth-most to fourth-most behind Gronik, Mitchell and Evers.

The boost could be related to the national media attention she received last month when she released a political ad in which she breastfeeds her infant daughter.

“Those kind of events happen,” Cullen said. “Somebody will say something not too smart and somebody will say something brilliant and that could make a difference in the end.”

Sollinger isn’t worried about the hesitation on the part of some donors. She said it will encourage the candidates to get creative in how they navigate a path to the nomination.

“This is a time for retail politics and getting out and working down the shoe leather a little bit,” Sollinger said. “The old-fashioned way when we didn’t have money.”

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.