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Crowded gubernatorial field fuels Democratic enthusiasm, indecision

Albert Flora, a retired school district AV coordinator from Hayward, and Marietta Heule, a hairdresser from Greenfield, peruse a button display at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin annual convention in Oshkosh on Saturday. Ten Democrats are vying for their party's gubernatorial nomination, leaving many Democratic voters unsure whom to support.

OSHKOSH — Saunnie Yelton-Stanley emerged from hearing 10 gubernatorial candidates address the state Democratic Party convention with a lot of homework to do.

She thought by this point, a year after candidates started jumping in the race, one candidate would stand out, but after hearing their speeches it was apparent they all had a lot of passion and would provide a strong contrast with Gov. Scott Walker. Throughout the speeches she took many notes and would have to review them before choosing one.

“They’re so similar with their issues it’s hard to choose,” said Yelton-Stanley, 67, a retired teacher from Racine. “Everyone I’ve talked to has said this is so hard. It’s a good problem to have.”

Those mixed feelings — enthusiasm for the collective field and indecision about which among their top few favorites to support — were widespread in interviews with more than a dozen of the more than 1,380 delegates, alternates and guests at the two-day convention, which ended Saturday.

And though it was common for Democrats to say they had narrowed down their list to three or four candidates, it wasn’t always the same three or four candidates. There were also divergent views on the size of the field, with some saying it was an advantage to have so many candidates fanning out across the state, and others saying it was making it harder to decide.

The field includes state schools Superintendent Tony Evers, former party chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, state firefighter union president Mahlon Mitchell, former J. Crew analyst Josh Pade, former Madison Rep. Kelda Roys, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, and Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire.

“It is too many,” said Lisa Williams, 51, a homeless shelter coordinator from Milwaukee. “It makes it more overwhelming.”

Williams said she had narrowed down her list to Mitchell, Flynn and Gronik because she had encountered them at events in Milwaukee, but she might add Roys to the list based on her convention speech. The candidate who wins her vote in the Aug. 14 primary will address her concerns about police treatment of African-Americans and LGBT issues.

Other attendees said they would be reviewing candidate websites, attending forums and watching for any disqualifying mistakes over the little more than two-month run-up to the primary.

“The message pretty much is the same,” said Randy Molle, 66, a retired teacher from Madison. “So it’s going to get down to, ‘Who do I think can carry the message and win?’ And I think several of them could.”

Republicans responded to the convention by highlighting the weaknesses of each candidate. Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch characterized the sprawling field as a sign of numerous factions within the Democratic Party.

“I don’t know how they come out of this with an excitement about winning in November,” Kleefisch said. “I know they’re going to try, but they’re going to try in a dozen different ways because they just have so many people running for governor.”

Roys wins straw poll

Roys got a boost from the convention with a first place finish in the traditional Wispolitics straw poll. It was a far cry from her showing in an early March Marquette Law School Poll in which she finished ninth with 0.3 percent support.

The straw poll isn’t scientific nor representative of the broader Democratic electorate, though it does provide a test of organizational strength. Several campaigns, including Roys’, were contacting convention-goers prior to the event.

Roys received 23.3 percent of the nearly 800 votes cast. Mitchell came in second with 11.8 percent support and Evers finished third with 11.5 percent of the votes. Four other candidates — Gronik, Wachs, Vinehout and McCabe — finished with more than 10 percent of the vote and Flynn wasn’t far behind with 9 percent, a sign of how evenly divided the attendees were.

Soglin, the only candidate who didn’t staff a booth on the second day of the convention, received one vote, fewer than the seven votes garnered by Pade, a latecomer to the race who still had staff visible on both days and a hospitality suite Friday night.

Soglin’s campaign manager Melissa Mulliken said prior to the convention she didn’t expect him to receive 2 percent of the vote and dismissed straw polls as meaningless. She noted Saturday after the result that Evers and Soglin ranked No. 1 and 2 in recent polls.

Still, Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, who is supporting Wachs, said he talked to a lot of delegates who said they are watching things like the straw poll and other polls and media coverage leading up to the primary. If someone they support is falling behind, they might be more inclined to switch to a leading candidate.

Ashley Lange, 34, a quality assurance supervisor from Wausau, said she was torn between Roys and Evers. She liked a lot about Roys’ ideas and presentation, but wished she could combine that with Evers’ statewide name recognition and expertise on education, a top issue.

“If I could morph three or four of them into one, they would be the super-robo candidate and I would love it,” Lange said.

One thing that struck Jennifer Neuman, 42, a teacher from Merton, was how Democrats in different parts of the state had different shortlists based on whom they know from their area. Those from Madison were more likely to list Roys, Mitchell or Soglin, while Gronik and Flynn were mentioned more by those from Milwaukee.

“Everyone is down to a few,” she said, adding the large field is posing a challenge. “Everyone should have a chance, but there needs to come a point where people who aren’t doing as well need to be done and move on.”

Tom Kitchen, 69, a retired teacher from Fond du Lac who was selling nine different candidate buttons (he didn’t make any for Pade because of his late entry), said he was surprised he didn’t sell any Evers or Soglin buttons. But sales in general were slower as Democrats perused, but didn’t commit to a purchase.

“I think there’s a lot of undecided people,” Kitchen said. “They don’t want to commit at this point.”

Marietta Heule, a hairdresser from Greenfield, scooped up a pile of Roys buttons. She had been leaning toward Roys, and the convention cinched her decision.

“We need someone new,” she said. “We need someone with fire and brimstone.”

“The message pretty much is the same. So it’s going to get down to, ‘Who do I think can carry the message and win?’ And I think several of them could.” Randy Molle, retired teacher from Madison
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