Dave Helling

Kris Kobach, Greg Orman and Laura Kelly can’t duck issues in Kansas gubernatorial debate

Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Greg Orman
Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Greg Orman File photos

Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves threw his support to gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly Tuesday, a sure sign the endorsement season is here.

Graves’ pick in the crowded Kansas governor’s race rattled the state’s political world, for a few hours at least. Graves is a Republican, and Kelly is a Democrat.

Yet it isn’t clear how much of a difference Graves’ endorsement, or any endorsement, will make in this race. In 2014, a long list of well-known Kansas Republicans endorsed Democrat Paul Davis for governor, but Sam Brownback won anyway.

Do endorsements matter at all? The Kansas State Council of Firefighters endorsed Republican Kris Kobach last week, but the group doesn’t even represent all of the state’s firefighters. Other labor groups are far more important.

A former Jeff Colyer campaign official is helping independent Greg Orman, offering whatever help a losing campaign chairman can provide.

Yes, the endorsement season is a hit-or-miss proposition. That’s why it’s far less important than another season, also now upon us — debate season.

Kobach, Orman and Kelly will share a stage for the first time this fall on Wednesday in Overland Park at a debate sponsored by the Johnson County Bar Association. KCPT-TV will broadcast the exchange Wednesday evening.

On Saturday, the three candidates are expected to meet at the Kansas State Fair, a typically raucous open-air debate that will attract attention, and reporters, from across the state.

Both events will provide critical information for voters. In fact, this year, debates will define the governor’s race.

Kobach will be tested. The Republican Party protected Kobach and the other GOP candidates by holding polite tea room discussions with friendly moderators, allowing the candidates to skip actual debates.

The GOP nominee can’t hide now. Debates will expose that fact quickly.

Kelly will face a difference kind of challenge. She knows more about state government than Kobach and Orman put together, but commanding the facts is just one test for a governor. She’ll have to demonstrate a calm focus and strength during the debates, where many Kansans will hear her for the first time.

Orman’s challenge is the most interesting of all. Kobach will undoubtedly attack both of his rivals in the debates, and Kelly is likely to return the favor. But which way will Orman turn?

Will he focus on Kobach, hoping to attract Colyer voters disgruntled with the Republican nominee? Or will Orman primarily engage Kelly, aiming his message at moderate Republicans and persuadable Democrats?

Or will Orman pursue both opponents, with a plague-on-all-your-houses message? This seems the most dangerous approach of all. The state’s voters will tire quickly of a mushy, I’m-not-them message.

We know you’re an independent, Greg. Now what? Schools? Taxes? Pensions? Transportation? Health care? You’ll stay stuck in the single digits in most polls unless and until you provide Kansans with a firm answer to those questions.

In fact, all three candidates will have to provide real answers about real issues in the next nine weeks. Endorsements don’t provide those answers; debates do. This week, Kansas voters will finally hear those answers and choose accordingly.