Five days ahead of Wisconsin's Democratic gubernatorial primary election, the candidates vying to challenge Scott Walker gathered Thursday for a debate among the party faithful in Madison, emphasizing their ability win statewide in November.
Seven candidates — Kelda Roys, Matt Flynn, Mike McCabe, Josh Pade, Mahlon Mitchell, Paul Soglin and Kathleen Vinehout — appeared in what was likely the last debate of the state's primary season to discuss their positions and make a late pitch to undecided voters. Tony Evers, who has led candidates in several statewide polls, did not attend the forum because of a scheduling conflict, according to organizers.
The event, which attracted a crowd of several hundred people, filled a room at the Concourse Hotel downtown and was hosted by the Dane County Democratic Party. Organizers asked specific questions to each candidate, focusing on issues they said each had not thoroughly discussed.
Despite Evers' lead in some polls, a sizable number of Democratic primary voters may still be undecided ahead of Tuesday's election, according to a July Marquette University Law School poll. That most recent poll from the school found 38 percent of Democratic primary voters were undecided. On Thursday, Roys won the forum's straw poll by a wide margin, 39 votes to runner up McCabe's 26 votes.
In the forum, Roys emphasized her experience working with Republicans in the Legislature to get bills passed.
"I helped Wisconsin be one of the first states to ban BPA… and Wisconsin was a leader in that," she said. "Those are the kinds of skills that we need in our government. We also need someone who is willing to actually exercise the powers of our governorship."
Flynn emphasized his litigation experience as an attorney and said the future of the University of Wisconsin System ("it’s being ... strangled right now"), the existence of unions and the state of the U.S. Constitution with a possible constitutional convention depends on electing a Democrat.
Voters should "take their poker chips" and bet on him and his experience to beat Walker, Flynn said.
"This is not a dress rehearsal. The choice you make on Nov. 6 is going to determine the fate of everybody and everything that we just discussed," he said. "I personally do not believe (the other candidates) have the fire or experience to beat him."
Organizers did not ask any questions about his experience working with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee which has come under fire by other Democrats and Republicans.
Several candidates, including Vinehout, Mitchell and McCabe emphasized their upbringing or work experience in rural counties that voted for Walker or Donald Trump in past elections. They said their pedigrees resonated with voters in those regions, Democrats and moderates, who are ready for a change.
Mitchell grew up in Delavan and attended the same high school as Walker. Democrats need a "crossover candidate," he said, and that is him.
"We need something different to run against Scott Walker. He does not have a playbook against me… it's time to do something new and it's time to do something different. It's time to surprise and amaze the state of Wisconsin."
Vinehout touted her ability to win in her home county where a large majority of voters supported President Trump.
"I also lived in a part of the state where Democrats have to win if we’re going to win. Nobody else can say that. I’ve won three times in a district that Scott Walker has won all of his races, in a district Trump won, in a county — my home county — that Trump won by almost 70 percent," she said.
The candidates largely did not criticize each other save for the issue of whether McCabe would support the Democratic nominee if it's not him. McCabe would not say which candidate he would not support, arguing that party pledges of loyalty were unsavory to unaffiliated voters.
"You see this as unity and you think unity will win us the election," he said. "Outside of the friendly confines of Madison, that party loyalty pledge is heard differently ... (This) has to be our sole message: what can we do to make government work for you because you feel government has betrayed you."
Soglin rebuked that reasoning and said he would unequivocally support whoever the candidate is.
"I have to be concerned if someone will not make a commitment to whoever wins the primary," he said. "My pledge is not based on any bargaining or negotiations. It is a pledge to support the candidate and beat Scott Walker."