MILWAUKEE — The eight remaining Democrats running for governor mostly avoided taking shots at each other in their first televised debate Thursday night and instead trained much of their fire on Gov. Scott Walker.
“This campaign is about defeating Scott Walker,” State Superintendent Tony Evers, the presumptive frontrunner based on last month’s Marquette Law School Poll, said in his closing statement, encapsulating the theme of the debate.
Former Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn said he is the only candidate who will “eviscerate” Walker in the general election. State firefighter union president Mahlon Mitchell when asked about something he had in common with Walker quipped: “We both have great hair” (they both went to the same high school 10 years apart). Former Rep. Kelda Roys said she didn’t take Walker’s $100 per child tax credit and called it an election-year gimmick.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who perhaps threw some of the sharpest elbows at Walker and another Democratic candidate, said Walker’s decision to push for record milk production has bankrupted farmers and that Walker doesn’t understand economic laws that 12-year-olds understand. He then said he wouldn’t allow President Donald Trump to send Wisconsin National Guard troops to the Mexican border.
“We are not aligning this state with Donald Trump,” Soglin said. “We are not sharing those values of hate and distrust and divisiveness that Donald Trump with the compliance of Scott Walker brings to this country.”
Walker, speaking to supporters at a nearby event before the debate, said Democrats are focused on what they are against, and he will focus on an optimistic message. “Their rhetoric is increasingly not only becoming more and more dangerously liberal, they’re increasingly talking with rhetoric that’s filled with more and more hatred,” Walker said. “We need to counter that but not with more of the same. We need to counter that with optimism and organization.”
Soglin singled out former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe for criticism twice in the debate, highlighting that McCabe is accepting only $200 donations from donors, but allowing them to make multiple $200 donations, and for not pledging to support the eventual nominee.
McCabe, a longtime advocate for reducing the influence of money in politics, said “it’s a mistake to make a party loyalty pledge.”
The 90-minute debate covered a range of topics and allowed the candidates to ask each other questions at one point.
Evers asked whether Flynn could treat people with respect after suggesting that Democrats calling for him to drop out of the race because of his representation of the Milwaukee archdioecese in the priest abuse scandal should “go jump in the lake.” Flynn emphasized that he was the only candidate who served in the military and said “a soldier does not frag his general from behind.”
Sen. Kathleen Vinehout challenged Soglin on how he would appeal to voters in Buffalo County, where she lives. Soglin said a poll he conducted last year found he could beat Walker statewide.
Some candidates lobbed softballs. Mitchell asked McCabe about his favorite beer (it’s Spotted Cow). Corporate lawyer Josh Pade, running for public office for the first time, asked Roys what she would do for women in Wisconsin. Roys, who has made women’s issues a centerpiece of her campaign, said, “It looks like my daughters might have fewer human rights than my mother.”
All of the candidates said the state should dramatically reduce its prison population. Pade and Evers were the only two who said they wouldn’t stop the Foxconn deal — Evers said “we’re already there.” Evers also was the only one who wouldn’t commit to free tuition for technical and two-year colleges in the state. Evers said “students should have some skin in the game.”
The field remains largely unknown to voters who are only starting to tune in to a race that has been unfolding for more than a year.
Evers emerged as the front-runner in last month’s Marquette Law School Poll with 25 percent support, but the race is still fluid with 33 percent undecided and the vast majority of respondents saying they don’t know enough about the candidates to form an opinion.
Flynn, Soglin and McCabe each received about 7 percent support followed by Mitchell, Vinehout, Roys and Pade.
Two candidates who will appear on the Aug. 14 ballot, Rep. Dana Wachs and Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, dropped out of the race last month after a poor showing in the poll.
The poll found Evers with the most respondents having a favorable or unfavorable view of him, but 61 percent still said they didn’t know enough to form an opinion.
The 90-minute debate at the Mainstage Theatre at UW-Milwaukee offered an opportunity for the candidates to make a first impression for many voters just tuning in for the first time.