Dave Helling: Kansas governor debate can’t be a one-sided affair

08/27/2014 5:00 AM

08/27/2014 10:00 AM

Back in my television days, I sometimes moderated campaign debates.

I was usually happy to do so. A good debate gives voters and reporters a valuable understanding of how a candidate reacts when challenged on the facts or point of view.

A good debate also requires at least two candidates. I learned that the hard way several years ago, when an incumbent who had agreed to a debate canceled at the last minute — leaving the challenger, me and about 150 guests with an hour or so to fill.

That gives a moderator two difficult choices. Toss softballs at the remaining candidate, which doesn’t help anyone, or fire questions that can be pointed and aggressive, soliciting important information but leaving the absent candidate off the hook.

I chose the second alternative, but it made me nervous. By aggressively questioning the candidate who did show up, I essentially became a surrogate for the missing opponent — never a good place for a reporter to be.

Moreover, the candidate who skipped the debate borrowed a chunk of my credibility without risking any of his own.

Which brings us to next week’s Kansas State Fair debate between Gov. Sam Brownback and challenger Paul Davis.

With less than 10 weeks to go before the election, Kansas reporters have done a pretty good job of matching Brownback’s rhetoric against his record. This week, for example, the Republican Governors Association began running an ad sharply criticizing Davis’ vote for a 2010 sales tax hike — the same sales tax Brownback used to build up the state’s bank account, which the governor boasts about in his ads.

That kind of connect-the-dots hypocrisy is easy pickings for political reporters. But because Paul Davis isn’t running ads, or has stayed largely out of the public eye, his views are getting far less scrutiny than Brownback’s.

And because reporters are aggressively questioning the governor’s record, Davis has been able to stay above the fray, effectively enlisting journalists (and, to be fair, credit rating agencies) as his surrogates.

That dynamic will soon come to an end. Davis can’t make Brownback the issue forever. Kansans will want to know what a Gov. Davis would do on a host of issues, from Medicaid expansion and same-sex marriage to tuition costs and abortion.

The race for governor in Kansas has largely been, at least until now, a one-person debate. Davis can change that perception — and fully introduce himself to voters — at the State Fair debate on Sept. 6.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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