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Politics

Kansas Governor, Senate Candidates Hold Lively Debates At State Fair

The Kansas state fairgrounds in Hutchinson became the front lines in two political races Saturday as the top candidates for governor and U.S. Senate met for lively debates. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has more…

The aroma of fresh funnel cake twists its way through the crowd at the state fair. On one side of the grounds, chickens strut nervously in their cages as judges pace by. Across the way, the carnival is alive with laughter and heckling from vendors about winning stuffed animal as prizes. 

But another kind of contest is also taking place--the debates that could determine who wins the upcoming state elections. 

The race for governor and another for a senate seat have brought a lot of people to the debate at the fair. Media is here--a lot of us--including Don Gonyea of NPR. 

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Credit Abigail Wilson
NPR's White House Correspondent Don Gonyea.

“And suddenly here we are--a couple of months, not even--until Election Day and Governor Brownback is trailing in the polls and has a very tough battle ahead of him," Gonyea says. "And then quite unexpectedly, on top of all that, after Senator Roberts survived his primary challenge, here he is in a two-person race with an independent candidate. The story line is just really rich.”

The audience didn’t stumble into the arena. They’re wearing carefully chosen t-shirts. Yellow for Gov. Brownback and red for Paul Davis. People from opposing sides sit near each other, without touching like we do on an overbooked airplane in coach.

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Credit Abigail Wilson
House Minority Leader Paul Davis.

Each candidate introduces themselves to the crowd.

“I’m a moderate, a common sense leader, and independent thinker," Paul Davis says. "I’m also the son of two teachers, and the parent of a soon to be kindergartner. That’s why the issue of public education is personal to me. That’s why I’ve been a 12-year-champion for our public schools in the legislature. That’s why I oppose Governor Brownback’s single largest cut to public school funding in state history.”

Brownback contests Davis's statement in his opening statement.

“Everything you’ve heard from Representative Davis is wrong, I’m sorry to say,” Brownback says. "Number one, there are more Kansans working now than ever in the history of the state. Number two, we put more money in education than ever in the history of the state.”

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Credit Abigail Wilson
Governor Sam Brownback.

The debate continues with comments on Medicaid expansion, Veteran’s care, water and wind. The men trade accusations about Brownback’s recent appointment of his former general counsel Caleb Stegall to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Caleb Stegall is the most qualified, talented person on the supreme court today,” Brownback says. "He graduated third in his class at KU."

The moderator directs the question to Davis.

“The governor had a choice between three people," Davis says. "One had 24 years experience as a judge. The other had 23 years experience as a judge. A woman. And Mr. Stegall who had less than one year. I think it’s pretty clear that he didn’t choose experience here.”

The candidates make their closing remarks and the crowd thins for debate number two. Many people do stay though, pulling on a new and different color of shirt to represent their favorite in the senate race.

Two people in the crowd shared their opinions on the day's activities.

I’m Linda Bohrrer. I’m from Ellinwood, Kansas and I’m here to support Sam Brownback and support Republicans in general here because I believe we’re on the right track."

“My name is Brian Koon and I’m from Johnson County. Brownback is disingenuous. Paul Davis is a hard-working, honest guy. That’s what I like most about him."

Supporters of Independent candidate for senate Greg Orman take the south side of the arena clad in a teal color. On the north side the camp for Senator Pat Roberts wears dark blue. Noticeably absent are supporters of Democratic nominee Chad Taylor who attempted to drop out of the race on Wednesday. 

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Credit Abigail Wilson
Senator Pat Roberts explains his position on immigration.

Roberts and Orman take the stage. A heated response from the crowd comes when the candidates share their thoughts on immigration policy.

“Secure the border. No amnesty,” Roberts says.

Orman disagrees.

“I think it’s absolutely impractical to think that we’re going to find and deport 11 million people and I think it’s frankly ill advised," he says. "There are whole towns in western Kansas that would go away.”

Western Kansas comes into the discussion again when Roberts addresses his residency in the town of Dodge City.

“The people of Kansas elected me to go to the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate is in Washington. My home is Dodge City and I’m damn proud of it," Roberts proclaims.

"Well, I suspect, Senator, that I’ve been to Dodge City more this year than you have," Orman retorts.

"How many times?" Roberts demands.

Orman responds saying he's been to Dodge City four times in the past year.

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Credit Abigail Wilson
Independent candidate Greg Orman addresses the audience.

"Well I’ve been about seven," Roberts replies. "So you’re wrong on that."

The debate ended with unanswered questions on all sides. By mid-afternoon, the yellow, red, teal and dark blue-clad supporters that filled the arena dispersed to their corners of the state. Their presence had all but disappeared.