MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Democrats running for governor promised to take federal Medicaid expansion money if they defeat Gov. Scott Walker next year, presenting a unified front Monday as the crowded field of candidates gathered at their first forum.

The candidates’ remarks were well-received by the audience they were addressing because they were speaking to the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans. Walker has repeatedly rejected Medicaid expansion dollars.

“Is there anybody here in favor of Medicaid expansion?” asked Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, one of the candidates, prompting the crowd to wave their “I support expanding Medicaid” signs. “Me too,” Gronik said.

At least 18 Democrats have declared an intention to run for governor or are considering it, but there is no clear front-runner. The nearly dozen candidates who attended the luncheon at Milwaukee’s Italian Community Center had only about two minutes each to speak.

Walker told reporters later Monday that accepting the federal Medicaid money, and rolling back the Act 10 collective bargaining law that many Democratic candidates are also pushing, would put the state in an economic recession.

“If people want to go backwards they can go with one of them,” Walker said. “I think we want to go forward with a state where we’ve got more people employed than ever before, where we continue to have budget surpluses, and we continue to see job growth that’s healthy going forward.”

Democrats used part of their two minutes to bash Walker, but none had stronger words than former state Democratic Party Chair Matt Flynn, who called the Republican governor “a sneakier, slyer, more disciplined version of Donald Trump.”

Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman did not respond to Flynn’s comments comparing Walker to Trump, but instead called the Democratic candidates “flawed.” He also alluded to Flynn’s past legal work more than a decade ago for the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee in cases alleging sexual abuse.

“While Scott Walker delivers big wins for hard-working families, Matt Flynn and the other highly flawed Democrat candidates are embracing an extreme agenda to take Wisconsin backward,” Zimmerman said in a statement. “Flynn ruthlessly fought to cover up the crimes committed against society’s most vulnerable children, and he can’t be trusted to lead Wisconsin or keep us safe.”

Flynn plans to formally announce his candidacy Tuesday.

Other candidates at the event included Mike McCabe, the former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign director, who decried “a political system that works really, really well for a wealthy and well-connected few,” and state schools chief Tony Evers, who also made Medicaid expansion a centerpiece of his remarks.

“My wife is retired and I understand the importance of Medicaid and Medicare,” he said.

The primary is in August and the general election is in November 2018.