MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Only four of the 10 Democrats running for governor in Wisconsin will be allowed to participate in a July debate being broadcast live statewide, a move that drew sharp criticism and could leave well-financed and competitive candidates waiting in the wings.
One candidate, Mike McCabe called it an example of the "rigged & corrupt the political system" while Scot Ross, the leader of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, urged all 10 Democrats to boycott the event.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party called on the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association to reconsider.
"This is not a fair and democratic way to go," party spokeswoman Melanie Conklin said. "With these criteria it is actually quite possible than an eventual nominee is excluded from their debates."
Much of the conversation in Democratic circles this spring has focused on whether -- and how -- the field of 10 candidates running for governor will narrow before the Aug. 14 primary. The winner of the primary will advance to face Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November.
The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, which is hosting the July 27 debate, said it was reducing the field by 60 percent to produce the best atmosphere "to help educate voters on the issues in these campaigns and provide for a good exchange of ideas between the most significant candidates."
Only the top four candidates in the most recent Marquette University Law School poll released before the debate will be allowed on the stage. They must also have raised at least $250,000 by June 30. If there is a tie in the poll, whoever has raised the most money will get in.
The same criteria are being applied for a Republican U.S. Senate debate being hosted by the association on July 21. While five Republicans have filed to run, only state Sen. Leah Vukmir and Delafield management consultant Kevin Nicholson are running serious campaigns.
McCabe, a political activist and former leader of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign who is running for governor, came out forcefully against the association's criteria on Twitter.
"Another example of how rigged & corrupt the political system has become, why our government is so messed up, and one of the many ways regular people in our country are made sick to their stomach about the condition of our democracy," McCabe tweeted.
A spokesman for the association said the group was preparing a response to the criticism and calls for candidates to skip the event. No other broadcast debates have been announced in advance of the primary.
Ross, the liberal group leader, said it was unfair to rely on a single poll as the primary criteria for debate inclusion. He's long questioned the merits of the Marquette poll and Charles Franklin, the pollster who leads it.
"It's not up to the broadcasters to determine who the viable candidates are and it's certainly not up to Charles Franklin," Ross said.
Franklin did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. He has not announced when the next Marquette poll will be or how close it will fall to the debate.
One Democratic candidate, former state Rep. Kelda Roys, welcomed the Wisconsin Broadcaster Association's criteria, with her spokesman Brian Evans saying Roys was confident of being one of the four to make the cut.
The format makes it possible that credible contenders will be excluded and candidate Matt Flynn wishes the association would reconsider, said his spokesman Bryan Kennedy.
State Rep. Dana Wachs, another candidate from Eau Claire, believes anyone who did the work to qualify for the ballot should be at the debate, said his campaign manager Brita Olsen.
Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik declined to comment.
The five other candidates did not immediately return messages. They are: state Superintendent Tony Evers; state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma; Madison Mayor Paul Soglin; state firefighters union leader Mahlon Mitchell; and corporate attorney Josh Pade.
In the most recent Marquette poll, released in March, 44 percent of respondents said they didn't know enough about the candidates to form an opinion. Evers led with 18 percent support, with no other candidate reaching 10 percent.