The WBA Foundation announced it will limit its debates this summer of GOP U.S. Senate candidates and Dem guv hopefuls to four participants each, based largely of the top finishers in upcoming Marquette University Law School polls.
The are currently 10 Dems who have qualified for the ballot in that primary, meaning more than half of the field will not be included in the July 27 debate.
Meanwhile, four Republicans have filed enough signatures in that race, though only two candidates are considered viable — business consultant Kevin Nicholson and state Sen. Leah Vukmir.
Several Dem guv candidates ripped the decision.
“Democracy works best when we all get involved. The WBA should not decide whom voters get to hear from in what will likely be one of the only televised debates in this important primary,” former state Rep. Kelda Roys wrote on Twitter.
But WBA President and CEO Michelle Vetterkind noted in a statement Monday the debate is limited to one hour. That means after removing introductions and questions from panelists, the four candidates will have about 10 minutes each to speak during the debate.
“In order to have a lively exchange of ideas between candidates in the time allowed, we can only accommodate four candidates,” she said.
To be considered for the debate fields, candidates must have qualified for the ballot or demonstrated they are “bona fide write-in candidates” by various measures. They also must have raised at least $250,000 by the most recent reporting period ahead of the July 21 debate for GOP U.S. Senate candidates or the July 27 debate for Dem guv hopefuls.
The WBA will then use the most recent Marquette poll released ahead of the each debate to select the top four. Fundraising numbers will be used as a tiebreaker.
Marquette poll director Charles Franklin told WisPolitics.com the surveys are planned in June and July with release dates to be determined.
After some began to criticize the debate criteria, Franklin issued a statement opposing the poll’s inclusion in the debate criteria. He noted those involved with the poll had no role in the WBA’s decision.
“All polls have a margin of error, making small percentage differences between candidates in a crowded field especially uncertain,” Franklin said. “We think the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association should not use our poll in this way.”
There has been scant polling in the race, particularly independent surveys. The most recent Marquette poll, conducted Feb. 25-March 1, found 18 percent of likely Dem voters backed state Superintendent Tony Evers, while 9 percent backed Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, 7 percent favored Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn and 6 percent supported activist Mike McCabe with a margin of error of plus or minus 7.1 percentage points.
Meanwhile, Soglin released a poll in April that found 30 percent of likely primary voters backed state Evers, followed by 17 percent for the Madison mayor and 12 percent for Vinehout. Flynn and Mahlon Mitchell, head of the statewide firefighters union, were tied at 6 percent apiece in a poll that had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
On the fundraising front, five Dem guv candidates had already crossed the $250,000 threshold by the end of December: Evers, Flynn, businessman Andy Gronik, Mitchell and state Rep. Dana Wachs.
McCabe, meanwhile, had raised $104,494, while Vinehout had pulled in $112,347.
Roys had raised $147,671 after getting into the race in December, while Soglin and Kenosha attorney Josh Pade did not get into the race until after the last round of fundraising reports were due.
The foundation said it reserves the right to update the criteria.