Supporters of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach repeatedly booed Gov. Jeff Colyer at a Republican debate in Johnson County Thursday night as the two leading Republicans exchanged barbs.
The debate at Johnson County Community College showed the way in which the campaign has grown increasingly personal with the Republican primary less than a month away.
“If this is what politics is, it makes me want to jump off the stage,” quipped Patrick Kucera, a Johnson County businessman and preacher mounting a long-shot campaign for the GOP nomination, in reference to arguments between the two leading candidates.
Colyer jabbed Kobach for his performance in defending his office against a lawsuit in federal court.
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“Integrity is an issue for Republicans and there is only one candidate on this stage who has been fined by a federal judge for lying,” Colyer said as Kobach’s supporters booed.
Kobach was fined $1,000 last year for misleading the court and faced additional sanctions from the court this year, including court-mandated classes on legal procedure, after a federal judge struck down the state’s proof of citizenship law, a policy crafted by Kobach.
It was one of several instances where Kobach’s supporters attempted to shout down the governor as he attacked their candidate.
Kobach had touted the law, which required voters to prove their citizenship before registering to vote, during his opening statement. He omitted the fact that a federal judge struck down the law as unconstitutional last month.
During his closing statement, Kobach presented himself as the candidate that would be more than just “a steady hand on the tiller” in the face of battles over social values.
“We’re going to have to fight for our values. We’re going to have to fight like a third monkey trying to get on Noah’s Ark. You understand me?” he said.
Colyer returned to the attack about Kobach’s performance in court against the American Civil Liberties Union in his closing statement.
“The worst thing is a show pony that think it’s a war horse,” Colyer said. “If the first inclination is to run to the cameras constantly and yell and scream, and then lose the ACLU, it’s not in your best interest.”
Earlier in the debate, Colyer responded to a question about illegal immigration by pivoting to an unrelated attack against Kobach for seeking a pardon for Ryan Bader, a man who was convicted of aggravated robbery in 2009.
Colyer denied the pardon last month and on the campaign trail he has repeatedly criticized Kobach’s advocacy for Bader, the vice president of a company that donated to Kobach’s campaign.
“Yeah, I took his case. Because this man wanted his gun rights back,” Kobach said.
He responded to the attack by hammering Colyer on the issue of illegal immigration.
“There’s been no leadership from the governor’s office ... We are the sanctuary state of the Midwest,” Kobach said.
Colyer said he opposed allowing students who came to the country illegally as children from receiving in-state tuition at the state’s universities, a policy that went into effect under former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Kobach, who has crafted a bill to roll back the policy, questioned why the governor did not pick up the phone to urge legislative leaders to pass the bill this last session.
“Again, crickets,” Kobach said.
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer accused Kobach of blowing the issue and the policy’s cost to the state out of proportion.
Fewer than 700 students statewide took advantage of the policy last year, according to data from the Board of Regents.
Colyer, Selzer and Kobach all centered their opening remarks on the controversy about an American flag with ink splotches that was displayed at the University of Kansas as part of an art project.
Colyer said he was appalled by the “desecration of the American flag on KU’s campus” and immediately called the Board of Regents and the university’s chancellor to demand its removal.
Kobach said he spoke out about the flag before Colyer and accused the governor of celebrating a symbolic victory because the flag is still on display inside a building.
Outside the hall, Kobach’s campaign parked a truck that featured a picture of President Donald Trump as Uncle Sam in the front, American and Kansas flags and a large, metal elephant blowing a trumpet in the truck’s bed.
All four candidates on stage spoke about their desire to pursue new tax cuts, only a year after the state abandoned former Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts, which were dubbed “the March to zero.”
Kansas suffered from years of budget shortfalls before lawmakers rolled back the policy by overriding Brownback’s veto.
Colyer said he worked with the Legislature to negotiate a lower tax rate without specifying whether he wanted to return to Brownback’s tax plan exactly.
“We’re going to be lowering that tax policy and we’re going to make it fairer for everyone,” Colyer said.
Kucera compared last year’s tax bill to a car crash that resulted from lawmakers overcorrecting in the face of the state’s budget crisis.
Selzer refused to answer a question from moderator Matt Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union, about which taxes were the best way to fund government: Income, sales or property.
“That doesn’t make any sense. We’re going to lean in on costs,” Selzer said, promising that he could fund a tax cut through spending cuts.
Kobach argued that Brownback’s tax cuts failed because the administration failed to limit the growth of spending.
“You don’t put the cart before the horse. You cut government first and then you cut taxes. That was the mistake,” he said.
A fifth GOP candidate, former state Sen. Jim Barnett, was at the debate but did not take the stage.
Barnett has refused to agree to the party’s debate rules, which have restricted which questions can be asked at party-sanctioned debates.
Barnett said if he had been allowed to participate he would have focused his comments on the state’s Mediciaid program, an issue which did not come up in the debate.