Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach repeatedly tore into Gov. Jeff Colyer when the GOP rivals shared a debate stage for the first time Friday night, accusing the new governor of living in a fantasy land and failing to uphold conservative principles.
Kobach mocked Colyer for thinking that a more than $500 million school finance bill, which he plans to sign, would put an end to the legal wrangling over school funding that has dominated the state’s politics for decades.
“If you pay a king’s ransom, which over 500 million bucks is a king’s ransom, you are not going to solve the problem,” Kobach said. “The next day another lawsuit will be filed demanding another ransom. You can’t live in a fantasy world where if we just keep paying, we just keep coughing up the money, then sooner or later everybody’s going to say there’s enough.”
The moderator offered Colyer a chance to provide a rebuttal, but the governor waved his hand to signal no. The debate went on and Kobach continued to jab at Colyer, accusing him of failing to answer questions.
“He didn’t get anywhere,” Colyer said afterward when asked why he did not respond to Kobach’s attacks.
“We were very clear what we’re doing about schools. We’re going to make sure Kansas schools are well-funded … and we’re going to make sure we’re not doing it with a tax increase," he said. "And here’s the fundamental thing: I, as governor, insisted on getting outcomes in this bill that make sure kids get a good education."
Colyer, who took the oath of office in late January, missed the party’s first debate because of illness. Friday’s event in Atchison marked the first time he'd shared the stage with two of the candidates seeking to supplant him as the GOP’s standard bearer after Sam Brownback’s departure for Washington.
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer was less direct in his attacks, but he also heaved criticism on Colyer and his predecessor.
"This state has been poorly managed. Poorly managed. We implement an ideology, but we don't think about how to manage it,” said Selzer, who repeatedly touted his background as a certified public accountant and promised to run the state more efficiently.
Colyer shrugged off the criticism from his competitors.
“I’m governor and if people want to attack, that’s fine. It’s an honor to serve the great state of Kansas," he said after the debate. "… I don’t scream and shout. I get results.”
Colyer, who served as a White House fellow during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, invoked the memory of his mentor and compared ending the school finance fight to winning the Cold War.
Both Selzer and Kobach panned the Legislature’s school finance bill.
“The ones who are thriving, they’re not asking for more money. It’s the ones who are failing,” Selzer said, contending the bill does not do enough to ensure school districts are held accountable.
Kobach said the spending increase would inevitably lead to a tax increase despite Colyer’s promises and complained that state taxes are already too high after lawmakers repealed Brownback’s tax cuts last year.
"Purple, pot-smoking Colorado has a better tax environment than Kansas does,” Kobach said.
He contended that some school districts have been overfunded, enabling them to construct “Taj Mahal-like” buildings and offer administrators inflated salaries.
Kobach said he went to school in a “shabby building” as a student at Washburn Rural High School in Topeka.
“My English classes were in a double-wide trailer… and somehow I managed to graduate and I got into Harvard and I did just fine,” Kobach said. “I didn’t need a supercomputer in every classroom.”
A fourth candidate for governor was present in Atchison but did not take the debate stage. Former state Sen. Jim Barnett has refused to agree to the party’s debate rules, which have been tightly governed by party leaders.
“I refused to sign the GOP debate agreement because it limits who can ask questions and what kind of questions can be asked," Barnett said. "Our party should stand for respect of our constitution, which is freedom of speech, freedom of press. It should also stand for open and robust debate.
“You guys should be asking the questions,” he told reporters.
Jim Joice, the party’s new executive director, said he is hopeful that Barnett will participate in a future debate. After debates in Wichita and Atchison, the party still plans to hold debates in western Kansas and the Kansas City area before the party chooses a nominee in August.
The evening also featured a straw poll between five GOP candidates in Kansas' 2nd congressional district. State Sen. Caryn Tyson won with 42 of the 114 votes cast.
The winner of the nomination will face Democrat Paul Davis in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins after she retires at the end of this term.
Former state Rep. John Bradford, a Lansing Republican who attended the debate, said he predicted nearly a decade ago that Kobach would become governor.
“I sat down one night in the Legends and I said, 'Kris, this is your career path. It’s going to be secretary of state two terms. Two terms as governor. President,' ” Bradford said. “And I looked at him and said, 'I want to spend a night in the Lincoln bedroom.' ”