Government & Politics

Trump, pot and taxes: Kansas governor candidates show differences in first debate

The Sam Brownback era of Kansas politics was debated again Wednesday by the man who largely wants to bring back the former governor’s tax cuts and the woman who helped lead the Legislature away from the conservative Republican’s control.

Republican Kris Kobach, Democrat Laura Kelly and independent Greg Orman clashed over policy in the first debate of the general election campaign for Kansas governor, with their views on tax and budget cuts showing major distinctions between the candidates.

Kobach wants to cut income and sales taxes, along with the state budget, while Kelly, a Democratic state senator from Topeka, called for Medicaid expansion and a quality education for all Kansans and lamented the impact Brownback’s earlier tax cuts have had on the state.

“I’ve never heard him tell us exactly what he would cut,” Kelly said to Kobach at the event in Overland Park. “Are we going to cut schools, are we going to cut foster care? Are we going to cut roads? What are you going to cut, Kris, to pay for your tax cut?”

Orman, who aligns more closely with Kelly on a number of issues, focused much of his energy in the debate on deriding how Democrats and Republicans have run the state when they’ve had control. He also called for “top to bottom” criminal justice reform.

The candidates traded barbs over what role state Supreme Court justices should have on school funding. Kobach supports a constitutional amendment that would largely remove the justices from the process, while Kelly was a hard “no” on the move. Orman said it didn’t make sense to have a constitutional amendment while the state is in the middle of a lawsuit concerning its education system.

The debate often found Kelly and Orman on one side with Kobach on the other, including on medical marijuana. Kobach said he opposed making it legal while the others were for it.

All three candidates agreed, however, for perhaps the only time of the entire debate, that they supported legalizing sports betting in Kansas.

The three candidates were critical of one another in close to equal doses.

At one point, Orman singled out Kobach’s immigration views.

“I almost think the idea, Kris, that you think that we need to get rid of all immigrants in Kansas, all illegal immigrants in Kansas, just disqualifies you to be governor,” Orman said. “It’s clearly a red meat issue for your base.”

Kobach, who defeated Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primary, made a point of using his tenure as Kansas secretary of state as a sign that he is ready for a promotion to governor.

“I’ve shown the people of Kansas that I deliver results,” Kobach said, pointing to his work passing voter ID laws through the Legislature early during his time in statewide office.

Each of the candidates was asked, “which action by the Trump administration do you support the most and which do you most oppose?”

Kobach, long a Trump supporter who was endorsed by the president the day before the GOP primary, applauded the federal tax cuts pushed by Trump. But he opposed the delay when it came to reversing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era program giving children who arrived in the U.S. illegally the chance to avoid being deported.

“President Trump eventually got there,” Kobach said. “I just would have gotten there faster.”

Orman said he appreciated Trump’s support for apprenticeship programs and technical education. But he said he was concerned abut the president’s approach on tariffs.

“Ultimately, I understand the strategy, but I think it’s a very risky approach” Orman said.

The harshest criticism of Trump came from Kelly, who said she had racked her brain for what she liked best and joked it was the attention paid to golf under Trump.

“I think the thing that I most abhor about the Trump administration is the divisiveness, the incivility, the xenophobia, misogyny that comes out of that administration on a regular basis,” Kelly said. “I think it’s tearing our country apart and I think we need a uniter, not a divider.”