The final, crucial eight weeks of the Kansas races for governor and U.S. Senate were launched Saturday in a pair of raucous, foot-stomping, sign-waving debates at the State Fair.
The stakes were enormously high for the candidates and for the state’s voters.
The two Republican incumbents — Sen. Pat Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback — trail their main opponents in recent polls, an astonishing fact in this reddest of states. Their struggles have drawn national attention.
Yet their opponents — state Rep. Paul Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Greg Orman, an independent Senate candidate — had much to prove as well. Each remains relatively unknown to voters, making the debates a chance for both to show they could stand toe-to-toe with their better-known adversaries.
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The result? Two informative, energetic, aggressive hour-long debates. The candidates covered taxes, schools, health care, even the terror crisis in the Mideast.
They were loudly and repeatedly interrupted by partisans who packed a fairground amphitheater. They, too, seemed to sense the importance of the season’s first general election debates in their state.
If the State Fair debates are any indication, the Kansas races will be fiercely argued until voters render their verdict Nov. 4.
Davis and Brownback went first. They immediately exchanged barbs over the governor’s controversial economic program, which included cuts in personal and business income taxes that Democrats claim have dented the state’s budget.
“We can do better,” Davis, the House minority leader, said. “Now is not the time to hit the accelerator on a failed experiment.”
But Brownback insisted the tax cuts were having the desired effect — prompting business expansion and bringing new jobs to the state. “Everything you’ve heard from Representative Davis is wrong,” he said.
Brownback tried repeatedly to nationalize the race, referring to Davis as a liberal, a supporter of President Barack Obama and “the Nancy Pelosi of Kansas.” Brownback said he opposed expanding Medicaid health insurance to the state’s poorer residents because it meant implementing Obamacare.
Davis implied he would seek a Medicaid expansion — as some Republican governors have, he pointed out. He sharply rejected comparisons to other members of his party.
“Our governor shouldn’t turn our state into an ideological laboratory,” he said, urging voters to reject a blue- or red-state model in favor of what he called “a proven Kansas model.”
Davis focused intently on education during his remarks, backed by applause from dozens of teachers wearing red T-shirts. He said the state cut education spending during Brownback’s term and would have to cut it again because of projected budget shortfalls.
“We’re going to be in great shape,” Brownback replied. Pointing at Davis, he said: “The sky fell while he ran the place.”
Brownback also said Davis supports consolidation of rural schools in the state, a claim the Democrat rejected.
And Davis said Brownback misled voters on the state of the economy four years ago. Brownback repeated his claim that the state had less than $1,000 in the bank at the start of his administration.
“Governor Brownback is just sticking his head in the sand on this issue,” Davis said. “Governor, your $876 number has been disproved over and over again. You need to stop saying that.”
Davis repeated his pledge to freeze coming income tax cuts to stabilize the Kansas economy. Increasing funds for education, he said, would then be his top priority.
Brownback said the Davis plan represented a tax increase on poor Kansans.
The two also argued over water policy and Brownback’s recent appointment of adviser Caleb Stegall to a seat on the state Supreme Court.
Davis said other nominees were better qualified. Brownback said Stegall was such a good lawyer he might one day qualify for the federal bench.
Their remarks were repeatedly interrupted by boos, catcalls, jeers and cheers. The grandstands were packed, and the front rows were occupied by partisans from both campaigns.
Brownback was a clear aggressor from the outset. Davis responded in kind without hesitation, as the two exchanged talking points about their positions.
Economic issues dominated. Neither candidate mentioned abortion, same-sex marriage or related social issues during the debate.
The Roberts-Orman debate seemed subdued only in comparison with the previous brawl between the governor candidates.
In his opening remarks — read from a script, like several of his comments — Roberts tore into Orman, claiming he was campaigning in disguise.
“My opponent wants you to believe he’s an independent. He is not,” Roberts said. “He is a liberal Democrat by philosophy.”
The incumbent also launched into a criticism of Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a trope he used so many times it eventually prompted derisive laughter from the crowd.
For the most part, Orman refused to take the partisan bait. He criticized both parties’ approaches, finally growing exasperated with Roberts’ repeated references to other Democrats.
“Senator, I’ve heard you say the words ‘Harry Reid, Obama, fight’ a whole lot,” Orman said.
“He’s your buddy, man,” Roberts interrupted.
“What I haven’t heard from you is ‘solve problems,’” Orman continued, to loud applause.
As expected, Roberts was asked about his residence. Roberts’ home in Virginia was considered a major issue in the Republican primary.
The senator said Dodge City was his home. “Don’t tell me I’m not from Kansas,” he said.
Orman said he has been in Dodge City more days than Roberts — a fact Roberts disputed (“I’ve been there about seven,” he said) — but Orman then said he doesn’t consider the senator’s residence a major issue.
“I don’t think it matters where someone lives, I think it matters how they vote,” he said. “And when it comes to voting for Kansas, standing up for Kansas values, Senator Roberts has taken a sharp turn to the right.”
The two agreed on some issues. Roberts said he voted against the latest version of the farm bill in part because it did not do enough to curb spending for food stamps. Orman said he wanted to pursue policies that would provide more incentives for people to find employment.
Orman said he supported immigration reform that would include some way for illegal immigrants to remain in this country, and he said deportation could devastate some western Kansas communities and industries. Roberts said simply, “No amnesty. Secure the borders.”
The two argued over gun control — Orman said he would support legislation that would require background checks at gun shows, while Roberts criticized virtually any regulation of gun ownership.
Roberts also addressed recent upheaval in the race. On Wednesday, Democrat Chad Taylor ended his campaign, a move urged by some Democrats.
Roberts said one of those Democrats was U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. “Something fishy is going on,” he said. “And I have a message for Claire McCaskill: We’ve had a lot of people come across the border. Just think of Quantrill.”
Asked after the debate if he had compared the Missouri Democrat to the man who burned parts of Lawrence during the Civil War, Roberts demurred.
“I don’t think she’s trying to burn down my grandfather’s newspaper, no,” he said.
He also repeated what’s expected to be a major theme of the fall campaign: Orman has not said which side he’ll join if elected.
“We don’t know where he is,” Roberts said. “‘Will I caucus with Republicans, will I caucus with Democrats, will I do one thing one day and another thing another day?’ There are a lot of things you can’t compromise.”
In a separate news conference, Orman said he will caucus with the party he thinks is most committed to problem-solving. If the Senate is split between the major parties, he said, an independent senator’s influence would be great.
After the debate, supporters of both candidates — perhaps weary after a morning of alternately clapping and booing — said their minds weren’t changed.
And those who remained undecided, like Kiah Duggins of Wichita?
“I really enjoyed all the yelling and cheering,” she said.