Claims and counterclaims of dirty campaigning in the Republican primaries took center stage Friday at a state Senate forum at the Wichita Pachyderm Club.
The forum matched three sitting Republican senators — Jean Schodorf of Wichita, Dick Kelsey of Goddard and Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick — against their three challengers, Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell, Rep. Dan Kerschen of Garden Plain and businessman Gary Mason, who recently moved from Wichita to Park City to challenge McGinn.
The candidates’ own campaigns have been largely overshadowed by the activities of outside groups seeking to either shift or preserve the statewide balance of power in the Senate.
Political forces aligned with Gov. Sam Brownback have targeted Schodorf, Kelsey, McGinn and others for defeat, in an effort to repopulate the relatively moderate Senate with members more in step with the staunchly conservative policies of the governor and the state House of Representatives.
The Pachyderm debate came a day after a Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce forum that the incumbents bypassed, after the chamber’s political action committee sent a mass mailer supporting the three challengers.
Schodorf rolled the “dirty campaign” ball into play in her opening statement when she decried outsiders injecting themselves into the race for the 25th Senate District in western and southern Wichita.
“The thing that we Republicans must do is talk issues and stop sending out slimy tabloids,” Schodorf said. “Every day I go, there’s a slimy tabloid, and I denounce all of them. They’re not worth the paper they’re printed on, and the people don’t deserve it.”
At least three outside groups have assailed Schodorf in mass-distribution publications, including Americans for Prosperity, the tea party group Kansans for Liberty and the chamber PAC.
An anti-O’Donnell mailer was sent out by a group called Kansans for Kansas.
During questions and answers, House candidate and O’Donnell supporter John Whitmer pressed Schodorf to condemn the Kansans for Kansas mailer that depicts the 27-year-old O’Donnell as a baby with a lollipop.
“Will you commit to not engage in negative personal attacks like the slimy tabloid, for example, that was sent out by Sen. Schodorf’s good friend Mary Knecht (treasurer of Kansans for Kansas)?” Whitmer asked the candidates. “And secondly, will you condemn and repudiate these kinds of attacks by people who support you?”
Schodorf replied that she already had condemned the mailer that Whitmer cited.
She said she spoke with O’Donnell’s father, the Rev. Michael O’Donnell of Grace Baptist Church.
“He was upset and I said, ‘I do not condone that. I am against that. When I saw that, I just went through the roof,’ ” Schodorf said. She said she had signed a clean-campaign pledge that she posted to her Facebook campaign page and asked Councilman O’Donnell to join her in it.
“I had received cards from the Chamber of Commerce with … falsehoods,” Schodorf said. “I received a card from Kansans for Kansas that was false, I received a card from Michael O’Donnell’s campaign that was very false. … I received cards from Americans for Prosperity and Kansans for Liberty, and I would like all of those groups to also make the pledge to stick to the issues, not twist the facts, but try to stick to the issues and say what’s good for Kansas, and not lies.”
O’Donnell shot back that “I would rather have character than a signed pledge to say that I’m going to run a clean campaign.”
“But the difference between the Americans for Prosperity group or my ad, which all are factual, is the Kansans for Kansas being run by Jean Schodorf’s close friend Mary Knecht – she’s a very good friend of Sen. Schodorf – and I choose my friends better than that,” O’Donnell said. “I would condemn my friends sending out mail like that because that’s wrong, and if any of my friends did that, I would not be friends with them.”
Kelsey, an eight-year veteran legislator, said that in past campaigns, he used to go to the mailbox every day to see if there were any contribution checks. “Now I go every day looking for postcards, and are they hit pieces?” he said.
Kelsey said the chamber mailer was the only one from outside that has landed in his district’s mailboxes so far. And while he’s criticized the chamber PAC for it, he said he appreciated that it was not a direct attack on him.
“I hope that we can get through the next two weeks, that outside groups stay outside of the 26th District,” he said. “My (mail) pieces are already designed for the rest of the campaign , they’re all positive, and I have committed to that in concluding this tough campaign.”
Kerschen, however, blasted Kelsey over a mailer that criticized him for not signing an anti-abortion petition circulated by the Kansas Coalition for Life, a group headed by former Sedgwick County Republican Party Chairman Mark Gietzen.
Although Kelsey won the coveted endorsement from the influential anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, Kerschen said he has a 100 percent voting record in support of KFL.
“And because, as quoted, I did not sign a certain petition, suddenly my qualifications are under question,” Kerschen said. “I had neighbors ask about that, and they understand I don’t have to sign a petition to say that I’m pro-life.”
He said if Kansans for Life endorsed the petition, he would have signed it, but as it is, it’s “all a political maneuver to do it, and that’s the kind of thing I don’t like.”
The race between McGinn and Mason — in northern Sedgwick County and Harvey County — has been relatively placid compared to the other two, and both candidates said they hope it stays that way.
“I have always run clean campaigns, six years as a county commissioner and eight years as a state senator,” McGinn said. “I believe it’s important to let people know about the facts, let them know who you are. That’s what they want to know when they make their decisions.”
Mason, a member of the chamber’s PAC board, made light of a mail mistake that had its pro-O’Donnell mailer sent to voters in the 31st District instead of the 25th, where it was supposed to go.
“I think the worst piece of mail that has hit my district was the postcard of Michael (O’Donnell) running against me,” he said to laughter from the Republican club. “But things haven’t elevated to where the other race has, and I hope it doesn’t.”