All we wanted to do was hold a candidate forum.
Given the indisputable significance of the 2018 race for Kansas governor, The Star Editorial Board planned to sponsor a pair of early face-offs in Johnson County to give voters a preview of the consequential campaign ahead. Who’s best-suited to pick up the pieces following the Sam Brownback revolution?
One forum would feature the Democrats, one the Republican field.
The five leading Democratic candidates quickly agreed to participate. That session will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Johnson County Library. You can sign up at www.kansascity.com/ksgovernor to attend.
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But corralling the Republicans for a Dec. 11 forum proved more difficult. Three of the eight candidates signed on: Ed O’Malley, Jim Barnett and Mark Hutton. (High school candidates weren’t invited because their inclusion would balloon the size of the field to useless proportions for a forum.)
Other Republican contenders hesitated. Eventually, we learned why. The party that champions small government and individual rights had decided to swoop in and take over the debate process.
GOP officials said they were operating at the behest of certain unnamed candidates who sought help overseeing debates. The party soon developed a detailed, four-page “Kansas Republican Party Debate Program” specifying that any forum would have to be “sanctioned” by the party. The program also outlined strict rules governing candidate participation and even the types of questions that could be asked.
Any candidate who doesn’t sign the agreement is barred from participating in sanctioned GOP debates.
Ridiculous, this is. Silly, too. A magnificent overreach and a disservice to voters.
The Dec. 11 Star Editorial Board forum didn’t make the cut. The party decided the first debate will be Feb. 17 in Wichita.
We’ve been asked if we’re interested in co-sponsoring a March debate. We’ve declined. Any forum governed by party rules dictating candidate participation and limiting the types of questions that can be asked is contrary to foundational journalistic principles.
They’re also contrary to the best interests of Kansas voters who more than ever need an unvarnished, uncensored look at this field. What’s to be gained from listening to a rigged debate?
What’s remarkable is the hypocrisy at play. Republicans had a field day over recent revelations that Hillary Clinton played an outsized role in controlling the 2016 Democratic debate calendar. It’s no stretch to suggest the Kansas GOP rules benefit Kris Kobach, who, based on name ID alone, enters the race as the GOP frontrunner.
To their credit, several Republican candidates have criticized the party’s plan to micromanage the debates. Barnett said it “limits speech and is controlling the democratic process.” Added O’Malley: “The proposed Kansas GOP debate agreement goes against everything we as Republicans stand for. We should be encouraging a competition of ideas — not limiting them.”
More drama is ahead. As of Friday, only five of the eight candidates had signed the agreement. Those who haven’t: Barnett, O’Malley and Patrick Kucera. Republicans may never get to see the entire field in one setting. What a shame.