Editorial: GOP debate pact ill-advised

Republican voters will have no shortage of choices when it comes to choosing their candidate for governor in the August primary. Unfortunately, they won’t get a rigorous debate to help them decide.

That’s because the state Republican Party has forced the gubernatorial hopefuls to sign a pact agreeing to only participate in debates that give all candidates equal time, ban personal attacks and prevent follow-up questions. Candidates who refuse to sign the pact are then barred from participating in the debates that are sponsored by the party.

Nearly 40 Republican candidates have formed campaign committees or appointed treasurers, including six teenagers and 10 who don’t live in Kansas. Of the major GOP candidates still running, Gov. Jeff Colyer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer have signed the debate agreement.

Former state Sen. Jim Barnett, a Topeka physician and the party’s unsuccessful 2006 nominee, has refused to sign the pact and was barred from participating in the first sanctioned GOP debate in February at the state party’s annual convention.

“It stifles debate,” Barnett said in explaining his decision not to sign the pact. “We should have open and free debate.”

Barnett said the format also protects the frontrunners — Colyer and Kobach — from having to answer difficult questions about their track records in office. He’s right. Colyer, Sam Brownback’s lieutenant governor for seven years, should have to answer for the disastrous tax policies the Brownback administration foisted on Kansas. Kobach should have to answer for his efforts to rewrite voter registration laws in Kansas and elsewhere.

Last month, the Kansas Press Association invited all the Republican candidates to participate in a forum at the media organization’s annual convention. Only Barnett showed up, and the top Republican candidates for governor missed a unique opportunity to pitch their candidacies directly to the largest gathering of newspapers in the state of Kansas.

The Republican Party defends the rules laid out in the pact, saying they keep debates focused on the issues that matter to active Republicans and avoid surprise questions. The party plans no more than six debates prior to the Aug. 7 primary. The state party did indicate it might revise the rules to allow for follow-up questions.

Debates are an important component of the American election process. They provide voters with an understanding not only of where candidates stand on specific issues, but also of how candidates think on their feet, handle pressure and respond to questions that they didn’t get in advance. As written, the Republicans’ debate pact ensures only the former and none of the latter will be on display during sanctioned debates. That’s a disservice to Republican voters.