Candidates spar at Kansas State Fair gubernatorial debate

photo by: Peter Hancock

From left, Democrat Laura Kelly, independent candidate Greg Orman and Republican Kris Kobach square off at the Kansas State Fair gubernatorial debate on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

HUTCHINSON – The three major candidates for Kansas governor traded barbs Saturday before hundreds of raucous supporters at the Kansas State Fair.

Democrat Laura Kelly, a state senator from Topeka, charged Republican Kris Kobach with wanting to take Kansas back to “the devastation” of the Brownback administration with his promises to cut taxes and spending.

Kobach, Kansas’ current secretary of state, in turn, countered that Kelly “has been part of the problem” for the past 14 years, for promoting increases in state spending.

And independent candidate Greg Orman, a Johnson County businessman, criticized both Kelly and Kobach for being part of the traditional two-party system that he said has stifled change and innovation.

“Kansas used to be a leader, a place other states looked to for inspiration,” Orman said. “Now we’re a cautionary tale, and both parties are to blame.”

State Fair debates have been a staple of Kansas politics for decades because it’s a venue that naturally attracts an audience from throughout the state, and it is also broadcast live on statewide radio through the Kansas Ag Network.

photo by: Peter Hancock

Supporters of Republican Kris Kobach, independent candidate Greg Orman and Democrat Laura Kelly wave signs and cheer during a gubernatorial debate at the Kansas State Fair on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

The event is also known for its highly charged atmosphere, because candidates and political parties bring out their most ardent supporters to chant and cheer, boo and heckle, while the candidates field questions on a wide range of issues.

Through it all, though, each of the candidates tried to steer the conversation back to their main talking points – Kelly stressing the need to invest in education, highways and to expand Medicaid; Kobach insisting the state needs to cut taxes and spending, while also reducing utility rates; and Orman emphasizing the need for economic development to expand the state’s tax base.

“When businesses come to Kansas, they pay the highest taxes in the five-state area and the highest utility rates in the five-state area,” Kobach said when asked what he would do to stimulate job growth.

Then, looking at Orman, who founded a commercial lighting company that he later sold to Kansas City Power & Light, Kobach added, “Greg has done a lot of great things in the business world, but he also served as CEO of a subsidiary of KCP&L that was part of those rate hikes.”

“You’re going back 15 years for that. The rate hikes occurred more recently,” Orman fired back. “I’ve spent my life creating jobs and opportunities, and I’ll do the same thing for the state of Kansas.”

Kelly, meanwhile, repeated her themes of investing in education, infrastructure and health care.

“And then we need to put back in place tools like the Kansas Bioscience Authority,” she said. “We need to bring the things back that were decimated by the Brownback experiment.”

That was greeted by both cheers and boos from the audience. Then Kobach got his chance to rebut.

“You just heard from a fairly socialist point of view, spend all the money you can and then maybe the economy will grow,” he said. “Well, we’ve learned from a century of history, that doesn’t work.”

Occasionally, the questioners in the debate found topics on which all three candidates generally agreed, such as the need to preserve the state’s water resources, particularly in the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas.

All three also said they saw no need to force more school districts to consolidate, and they all generally opposed the idea of a constitutional amendment to allow voters to initiate legislation and constitutional amendments through processes called initiatives and referendums.

But there were sharp disagreements on hot-button issues such as criminal justice, gun rights and the policies of President Donald Trump.

“Let us not ignore the fact that we have got to deal with gun policy in this state,” Kelly said, in answer to a question about how to address the state’s rising murder rate. “I have been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment but …” Her voice then became inaudible as she was drowned out with both cheers and boos.

“If Sen. Kelly is a supporter of the Second Amendment, then I will support her high taxes,” replied Kobach, who has campaigned riding in a jeep with a replica 50-caliber machine gun mounted on top. “There is no silver bullet, there is no simple answer, but one thing is clear. For violent crimes, we must maintain our law and order posture in Kansas. We must maintain high penalties.”

Later in the debate, Orman reminded the audience that Kelly was a co-sponsor of the so-called “constitutional carry” law that allows people to carry concealed firearms without a license or training — a law Kelly said she admits went too far — and he pointed out that cosmetologists in Kansas are required to have more training than people carrying concealed weapons.

But Orman brought the question of crime back to his economic development plan, saying, “If you look at crime, people commit them for various reasons. And so ultimately, I think we need to grow the Kansas economy. We need to create jobs and opportunities that allow people to lift their lives up instead of putting them in desperate situations where they feel they have no alternative.”

The issue of Trump’s trade policies came up when the candidates were asked what they would do to help promote trade for Kansas agricultural products.

The question went first to Kobach, a strong ally and occasional adviser to Trump. Portions of the audience then erupted in boos and jeers as soon as Kobach mentioned Trump’s name as he praised the president for trying to renegotiate major trade agreements.

“If there is ever a situation where Kansas farmers are in need of the president’s attention, I can pick up the phone and call him,” Kobach said, eliciting cheers from his own supporters in the audience.

Orman said he hoped Trump is successful in his efforts, but added, “Ultimately, it’s a risky strategy that could potentially disrupt not only trade today, but trade for a long time. Because when these supply chains get broken, rebuilding them is difficult.”

Kelly, on the other hand, said she would work to move trade talks in another direction.

“I will put pressure on our congressional delegation to send a message to the president that we need to deal with this tariff and trade war now,” she said.

At the end of the 90-minute debate, supporters from each of the campaigns said they thought their candidates did well.

photo by: Peter Hancock

Crowds file past food stands at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson where the three major gubernatorial candidates debated each other on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

Mark Steffen, a Kobach supporter from Hutchinson, said he thought Kobach came off as better prepared than the other candidates.

“I thought it was particularly interesting, when our next governor-to-be made debate points with facts and figures, that’s when our liberals yelled the loudest,” he said. “And that’s unfortunate.”

Carolyn Weinhold, a Kelly supporter from Topeka, said she thought the large contingent of Democrats in the audience boosted Kelly’s performance.

“She was more dynamic than usual,” she said. “I think she gave her message strong and clear, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Elaine Stephen, a volunteer with the Orman campaign, said she was impressed with Orman’s performance. Perhaps more importantly, though, she said neither of the two major parties appealed to her.

“The parties have left me behind,” she said. “I’m now without a home in either party. Neither party represents me anymore. I’m basically a moderate conservative and just feel that the independents just best represent my views.”

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