TOPEKA, Kan. — When it comes to debates ahead of the Kansas primary, Republican candidates for governor are a bit like teenagers who hope their parents will forbid them to go to parties they really dread anyway.
The state Republican Party is taking lumps for getting most major candidates to sign a pact that has the party sanctioning debates only if they give all candidates equal time, ban personal attacks and prevent follow-up questions. Candidates who don’t sign the pact can’t participate in the debates that are GOP sanctioned.
The criticism intensified after most skipped a decidedly unsanctioned Kansas Press Association event last month.
The party defends the rules as focusing debates on issues that matter to active Republicans, while limiting the number to four, five or six before the Aug. 7 primary so candidates still can campaign largely as they wish. Chairman Kelly Arnold said the major candidates wanted limits and that the party doesn’t want debates in which several serious candidates got little or no time.
“Order out of chaos is always good,” said Gov. Jeff Colyer, who signed the agreement, adding that the resulting debates allow the participating candidates “to put their best foot forward.”
Chaos marked the Kansas governor’s race even before former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback resigned in January to take an ambassador’s post, elevating Colyer from lieutenant governor to the top job. Colyer is running for a full, four-year term.
Nearly 40 prospective candidates have formed campaign committees or appointed treasurers, though three serious Republican candidates have dropped out. At least six are teenagers and 10 live out-of-state — taking advantage of the state’s lack of a legal age or residency requirement.
Of the major GOP candidates still running, Colyer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer have signed the debate agreement.
The fourth, former state Sen. Jim Barnett, a Topeka physician and the party’s unsuccessful 2006 nominee, refused. That kept him out of the first sanctioned GOP debate in February at the state party’s biggest annual convention.
Barnett contends the party-sanctioned format protects candidates — particularly Colyer and Kobach — from facing embarrassing questions. The agreement requires questions that all candidates can answer.
“It stifles debate,” Barnett said. “We should have open and free debate.”
The agreement also says participants must be registered Republicans and have voted in the state’s 2014 election — excluding the teens and out-of-staters.
Two candidates who participated in the February debate have since dropped out of the race, former state Rep. Mark Hutton, and businessman Wink Hartman, both from Wichita.
The Kansas Press Association had its own debate a week before, and of the major Republican candidates, only Barnett showed up. Doug Anstaett, the group’s executive director, said others advised him that they felt they couldn’t attend or suggested his group seek the GOP’s approval.
“We’re the press. We don’t ask for permission,” he said.
Anstaett added that it’s “amusing” for a party to sanction a debate format designed to eliminate surprises for candidates.
“That’s the essence of government,” he said. “You have surprises.”
Arnold said the party is considering tweaking the format for the next sanctioned debate April 13 in Atchison to allow follow-up questions.
“We’ve let the candidates drive the direction on all this stuff,” Arnold said. “The party’s just really facilitating it.”
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