CAP_DemGovernorForum (copy)

Democratic candidates for governor prepare before a public forum Sunday night at Madison La Follete High School.

In a field of about a dozen Democratic candidates vying to unseat Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, it's a challenge for any individual candidate to break away from the pack. Some have found themselves excluded from candidate forums.

Debate organizers faced similar challenges from the 2016 Republican presidential field, with some opting to hold a separate "undercard" debate in addition to a contest for the top contenders, based on candidates' standing in national polls. 

That's not a viable option in the Wisconsin gubernatorial field, where a majority of voters who intend to vote in the Democratic primary say they don't know enough about any of the candidates to have an opinion on them, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers is the most well-known candidate, and still only 34 percent of Democratic voters have an opinion about him.

"This is a flat field right now, in public perceptions," said poll director Charles Franklin.

Even among candidates voters have some awareness of, the differences in favorability levels between them is smaller than the margin of error for the poll, Franklin said. 

"Bottom line is, I think we should chill a little bit, wait our time," Franklin said. "These folks are going to campaign more and voters are going to tune in through the course of the spring, and by the time we get to summer they’ll begin to be better known."

Franklin said the Democratic gubernatorial field shares some of the challenges of the 2016 Republican presidential field. Among the 16 GOP candidates, there were generally five or six significantly ahead of the rest of the field, Franklin said, but the overall size prevented it from sharpening in a timely manner. 

In the Democratic gubernatorial contest, attention will also be divided across the candidates, whether in a forum or a debate, Franklin said. 

The absence of significant polling results leaves forum organizers a handful of other criteria, including campaign cash, staffing levels and resumes, to set their line-ups. But even some of those aren't solid indicators at this stage of the game.

A recent candidate forum hosted by the Construction Business Group in Wisconsin Dells featured the five top fundraisers in the race — which happened to be five men, in a field that includes a women serving in the state Senate and a woman who once served in the state Assembly. 

Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman said the forum discriminated "against female candidates and others who have as much of a shot as any of the five men allowed on stage."

Robb Kahl, executive director for the Construction Business Group and a Democratic former state representative, said it was not feasible to invite every candidate, given the size of the field.

"Space and time constraints necessitated that participation be limited. We consulted with outside counsel to develop criteria for invitation to participate," Kahl said in an email. "Ultimately, only two criteria were used. First, candidates from either party were considered for invitation. Second, the top six fundraisers (total dollars raised by year end Dec. 31, 2017) were selected."

Evers, the top fundraiser in the field, reported raising $749,634 last year. Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn, the fifth-highest fundraiser, raised $350,510 last year.

Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, who took in $554,429 last year, was the first to enter the race, in July. Evers and state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire — who raised $555,264 last year — launched their campaigns the following month. Flynn followed in October, and state firefighters union head Mahlon Mitchell launched his bid in November, taking in $395,809. 

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who took in $7.1 million last year, was also invited to participate but did not attend. 

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, raised $112,346 last year and former Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, took in $147,670. Vinehout entered the race in September; Roys launched her campaign at the end of December. 

"In a year when women are running for office in record numbers, and are more organized and energized than ever before, it's not surprising that some establishment men are threatened by our bold campaign and growing momentum," said Roys campaign manager Sonja Chojnacki in an email. "They may want to continue playing kingmaker in smoke-filled rooms, but it’s 2018 — women are done being silenced."

Roys is among the least-known candidates in the field, according to the Marquette Poll. She released a video this week that immediately commanded attention because she breastfed her baby on camera while discussing legislation she worked on while in office. 

Vinehout, who won 4 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary in the 2012 recall election against Gov. Scott Walker and briefly considered another bid in 2014, said she was aware different groups were inviting different candidates to participate in their forums.

"Some events I've been invited to, and I have actually heard of some events I haven't been invited to, but I haven't ever really felt left out since I've been invited to events other people haven't been invited to," Vinehout said in a phone message. "I guess that's just democracy." 

Political activist Mike McCabe, who has been at odds with the Democratic Party throughout his campaign, said the forum's organizers "must be getting nervous, which makes them want to limit who voters get to hear from."

"That's a losing strategy. I say let the people decide. I'm just going to keep pounding the pavement and reaching out to everyone who's willing to hear my message," McCabe said in an email.

McCabe raised $104,493 last year. 

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has not endorsed a candidate in the primary. Officials noted the party is treating all Democratic candidates equally.

The RPW's Zimmerman said "attempts by the (Democratic) establishment to narrow down the clown-car primary will do nothing to fix the incredibly flawed nature of this wide-open field."

DPW spokeswoman Melanie Conklin said Democrats "are proud of our broad and incredibly accomplished field of candidates, who we are being treating equally by our party."

"Forums are being held by a wide variety of other groups, but not the Democratic Party of Wisconsin," Conklin said.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin garnered the second-highest amount of recognition in the Marquette poll; 29 percent of voters knew enough about him to have an opinion.

Soglin, the most recent candidate to enter the race, didn't launch his campaign until January — which meant he missed the first campaign finance deadline. 

Soglin campaign manager Melissa Mulliken said there may be a tendency among insiders to winnow the field prematurely, but said county parties throughout the state have been open to hearing from all candidates.

"Political insiders sometimes want to put their thumbs on the scales in terms of which candidates get heard. That’s not healthy for the democratic process, small 'd' or capital 'd.' Paul has been invited, welcomed, and very well received by county party members and officers, grassroots activists, and voters at events around the state," Mulliken said in an email. "They are looking for the strongest, best candidate who will fight to put the interests of the people of Wisconsin first."

A forum held in January by Madison's East Side Progressives featured nine candidates. An organizer for the event also did not respond to an email seeking comment on how the candidates were chosen. 

In total, 16 candidates have registered to run in the Democratic primary. 

It's not unusual, at this point of the race, for serious candidates to be largely unknown, Franklin said. In January 2012 ahead of her victory later that year, now-U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin — then a congresswoman — was unknown by 50 percent of voters. Ahead of his 2016 re-election bid, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson was unknown by 30 percent of voters months before the election.

"It takes non-incumbents a good while to catch on, to become familiar to the voters. This year, with the extra-large field, it may take a little bit longer," Franklin said. "It’s hard to say when the public turns to the election. In part that’s simply a matter of time, but it’s also in part a question of when do the candidates start to engage in mass advertising, for example, which is the way that a lot of people become familiar with them, or they engage in forums and debates, which generate news coverage."

This article has been updated to correct the number of registered Democratic candidates for governor and to add a quote from a Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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.