Melinda Henneberger

Is that you, Laura Kelly? Democrat finally hits back at Kansas State Fair governor debate

Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly greets supporters of her campaign for governor at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson on Saturday, Sept. 8.
Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly greets supporters of her campaign for governor at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson on Saturday, Sept. 8. The Kansas City Star

HUTCHINSON, KANSAS — One of the many Democrats who showed up to cheer for Laura Kelly and jeer Republican Kris Kobach in Saturday’s wild, whoop-filled open-air governor’s debate at the Kansas State Fair said she barely recognized her candidate.

“This is the first time I’ve seen Senator Kelly fired up,” said Gina Long.

It was a first for me, too, Gina. The Laura Kelly on the stage was crisp, combative and loud — really, there’s no other word for it. She sliced the air with her hands to punctuate every word, almost as if she’d gotten some coaching from Sen. Elizabeth Warren since her last debate, just three days earlier.

“I’m the only thing standing between Kris Kobach and the governor’s office!” the usually mild Kelly yelled in closing. (And the other guy, independent entrepreneur Greg Orman? She accused him of just standing around complaining.)

So how many cups of coffee, Senator? “What people don’t understand,” she said after the event, smiling, “is I’m fiercely competitive. When I’m in the ring and on the tennis court, I will fight like the devil.”

Members of what Kelly called her “very robust fan club,” some of whom were bused in from Topeka where she lives and legislates, were prepared to do the same.

In fact, they were so robust, yelling at the voter-fraud obsessed Kobach, “You’re a criminal!” and “That’s wrong!” that the secretary of state spent more of the debate pushing back against the crowd than he did taking on the other candidates.

When they booed his opposition to legalizing either medical or recreational marijuana, he invited them to “go eat some Doritos, c’mon!”

When they laughed at his insistence that Kansas roads are among the best in the country, he groused, “I know facts aren’t liked by people on the left.”

When they drowned out his plan to cut public school administrators, he answered, “I know you don’t like math, but just listen! Ooooh, they really don’t like math. Or logic. Or how about rational thought?”

And when they shouted down his plan to arm teachers, he told them, “Because I want my children to live!”

The substance of the debate was nothing new: Orman wants to grow the economy, though how he doesn’t say. Kelly intends to expand Medicaid, restore schools and roads and more after what she calls the “devastation” wrought by former Gov. Sam Brownback’s deep tax cuts. Kobach’s plan is to cut and then cut some more. He repeatedly called Kelly, Orman and their supporters socialists and profligate spenders.

Kelly’s tone and energy were so different, though, that the usually aggressive Kobach mainly seemed annoyed as he marched through his talking points. “And money grows on trees,” he said wearily, in answer to her promise to “reform our KanCare system, which has been a disaster from the very beginning.”

With the help of her cheering section in the bleachers, of course it was Kelly who was having the best time of the three candidates at a face-off she called “just fabulous.”

When asked to name a favorite evil fair food, both Orman and Kobach went with fried Oreos, but Kelly was feeling more celebratory: “I’m going after the deep-fried pina colada,” she said, laughing.

In answer to a question about whether the candidates would, if elected, promise to serve out their terms, unlike former Governors Brownback and Kathleen Sebelius, both of whom left early to serve in Washington, Kelly deadpanned, “I seriously doubt that Donald Trump is going to offer me a position in his administration. (Dramatic pause.) However, if he does, I’ll say no.”

After the candidates climbed down from the stage, Kelly and Kobach were surrounded by supporters and reporters, but Orman posed for a few selfies and then walked right by even some folks in blue Orman T-shirts, leaving hands unshaken.

A man who liked him anyway, Republican Floyd Williams of Wichita, said he was supporting Orman for the same reason he voted for Trump: “I wanted a change, something new.”

Republican Bob Schreck, also of Wichita, said he came to the debate undecided, but left a Kobach supporter. Why? “He tolerated all the harassment from Democrats,” he said, “where I would have lost my temper.”