MADISON, Wis. — Only four of the 10 Democrats running for governor in Wisconsin will be allowed to participate in a July debate being broadcast live statewide, a move that drew sharp criticism Monday and could leave well-financed and competitive candidates waiting in the wings.
One candidate, Mike McCabe called it an example of the "rigged & corrupt the political system" while Scot Ross, the leader of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, urged all 10 Democrats to boycott the event.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party called on the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association to reconsider.
"This is not a fair and democratic way to go," party spokeswoman Melanie Conklin said. "With these criteria it is actually quite possible than an eventual nominee is excluded from their debates."
But the association's president and CEO, Michelle Vetterkind, stood by the decision, saying limiting the stage to just four candidates was the only way to have a "lively exchange of ideas" in an hour-long debate being broadcast by stations across Wisconsin.
Another debate, being staged two weeks earlier on July 12 and organized by Wispolitics.com, will include at least nine of the 10 candidates. Final details were still being worked out, but the intention was always to include all of the top candidates, said Wispolitics.com President Jeff Mayers.
Much of the conversation in Democratic circles this spring has focused on whether — and how — the field of 10 candidates running for governor will narrow before the Aug. 14 primary. The winner of the primary will advance to face Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November.
The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association decided that only the top four candidates in the most recent Marquette University Law School poll released before the debate will be allowed on the stage. They must also have raised at least $250,000 by June 30. If there is a tie in the poll, whoever has raised the most money will get in.
Even Marquette pollster Charles Franklin objected.
"All polls have a margin of error, making small percentage differences between candidates in a crowded field especially uncertain," he said. "We think the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association should not use our poll in this way."
He has not announced when the next Marquette poll will be or how close it will fall to the debate.
The same criteria are being applied for a Republican U.S. Senate debate being hosted by the association on July 21. While five Republicans have filed to run, only state Sen. Leah Vukmir and Delafield management consultant Kevin Nicholson are running serious campaigns.
McCabe, a political activist and former leader of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign who is running for governor, came out forcefully against the association's criteria on Twitter.
"Another example of how rigged & corrupt the political system has become, why our government is so messed up, and one of the many ways regular people in our country are made sick to their stomach about the condition of our democracy," McCabe tweeted.
Other Democratic candidates — state Rep. Dana Wachs, former state Rep. Kelda Roys, firefighter union leader Mahlon Mitchell and former state party chairman Matt Flynn — all said it would be better to have more candidates on stage.
And state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who is also running, decried the requirement that candidates have raised at least $250,000 to qualify.
"Giving money a deciding voice sends the message that the rich are more important than the poor, that those who write big checks have more influence than those who knock on doors or put up yard signs," she said.
Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik declined to comment. The three other candidates — state Superintendent Tony Evers, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and corporate attorney Josh Pade — did not immediately return messages.
Pade was the only candidate not initially invited to the Wispolitics.com debate because his candidacy was just getting off the ground in April when letters were sent. Other partners in that debate include the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the USA Today Network-Wisconsin and Milwaukee Public Radio.
In the most recent Marquette poll, released in March, 44 percent of respondents said they didn't know enough about the candidates to form an opinion. Evers led with 18 percent support, with no other candidate reaching 10 percent.