OSHKOSH — Excitement, enthusiasm and confusion abounded as Democratic candidates, supporters and activists gathered for the party's annual convention on Friday and Saturday.
"I’m really excited because there are so many good candidates. But it’s a little overwhelming because there are so many good candidates," said Rosanna Scannell of Green Bay.
Scannell, like many who attended the convention, has not yet chosen a candidate to support in the Aug. 14 primary election — and she has 10 from which to choose.
Kelda Roys, a former state representative and the founder and CEO of real estate tech company OpenHomes, took a commanding lead in a straw poll conducted by WisPolitics. Of 789 ballots cast by convention attendees, Roys earned 23.3 percent of the vote. Roys, 38, is the youngest gubernatorial candidate and one of two women in the field.
In second place was Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin head Mahlon Mitchell, with 11.8 percent, followed by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers with 11.5 percent. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin received just one vote.
Each of the 10 candidates vying for the chance to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Nov. 6 addressed a crowd of about 1,300 attendees Friday night, then courted voters in the halls of the convention center and in hospitality suites. Soglin, who was on-site Friday evening, was not seen mingling with attendees on Saturday.
Lusciana Gomez, of Milwaukee, will vote in her first election in the August primary. Gomez, a first-year student at Stanford University, plans to cast an absentee ballot.
Gomez, who comes from a politically active family — her father, Gabriel Gomez, is running in the 21st Assembly District — said she decided which gubernatorial candidate to support based on how they treated her personally.
"I’m a female, I’m young. This is my first election that I'm voting in. I noticed some of them … are completely dismissive," Gomez said. "Kelda talked to me like she cared about me."
Student loan debt was the first issue Gomez named as a priority. Roys has spoken frequently about refinancing student loan debt and making two-year and technical colleges free.
Racial and gender equality and environmental protection are also important to Gomez. She said she would like to see more discussion from candidates about how to fight human trafficking.
Having helped with a few voter registration drives at her high school, Gomez said she sees enthusiasm among young people, and she's "really optimistic" about Democrats' chances in 2018.
Scannell, who named mental health and student loan debt as two issues that could influence her vote, was encouraged by the results of the April 3 state Supreme Court election. Judge Rebecca Dallet, the candidate backed by the left, won the election and carried Brown County — by no means a slam-dunk for Democrats and liberal candidates — by 10 points.
Manitowoc County Democratic Party chairman Ronald Kossik, who will not endorse a candidate in his party role, said he is realistic about the challenges Democrats will face, but said he believes the public's frustrations with government "responding to the rich rather than the good of all people" are building in a significant way.
"The number of candidates we have makes it more confusing, but overall I think it’s positive because it reflects the momentum for change that we’re seeing," Kossik said.
While Democrats argued the breadth of candidates on the primary ballot is a sign of a "blue wave" that will erode Republicans' majorities in state government, GOP leaders said their party has the advantage of being unified behind Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
Kleefisch spoke with local GOP supporters at the Winnebago County Republican Party field office on Friday before the Democratic convention began.
"When you have that many candidates you’ve obviously got a party that has countless factions. You’ve got a really fractured party," Kleefisch told reporters. "I don’t know how they possibly come out of their convention galvanized behind one candidate, excited about one vision."
Kleefisch said Republicans are realizing, as the election nears, that "this is do or die time" for the party.
Former state Rep. Mandela Barnes, a candidate for lieutenant governor, gave a fiery speech on Saturday encouraging "all shades of blue" to come together "not just (as) a party, but a larger movement."
"We're gonna bring energy, we’re gonna bring ideas and we’re gonna bring organizing all the way through November," said Barnes, who took 80.9 percent of the straw poll votes to Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober's 19.1 percent. "I’m here to tell you we are not done, we’re just getting started."