Campaigns and debates should go hand in hand. The campaign for governor should be one in which any voter in the state can see at least one debate. Unfortunately, it looks like most Kansans will not see Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and state Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, face off this year.
Kansas has a tradition of debate. From 1978 through 2006, gubernatorial candidates averaged about six debates. The schedule included one or two debates for television and three to four more non-televised ones, including at the Kansas State Fair.
Sadly, 2010 breaks with that tradition.
Both nominees wanted debates when the campaign began. Brownback's political success traces back to his proposal of 10 debates in 10 weeks in his campaign against then-Sen. Sheila Frahm in 1996. Brownback emerged as a skilled debater then and again in nine TV debates while seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 2007. Holland revived Brownback's 1996 strategy, challenging him to 10 debates. It's not 1996 anymore, and though Brownback seemed eager to reach every presidential primary voter possible in 2007, that doesn't seem to apply in Kansas now.
Brownback and Holland were scheduled to debate on Topeka's WIBW radio and television, but Holland dropped out claiming WIBW's radio hosts would be biased. He now says the debate is being negotiated. The State Fair debate was streamed online but not archived for later access. One debate would be a poor but acceptable alternative, if broadcast statewide.
What happened to 10 debates? Brownback's campaign says the answer is simple: He's booked. A Brownback representative says the senator's calendar is 100 percent full between now and the election. None of the times offered by Topeka's KSNT-TV would fit their schedule. When KSNT offered to find a date to fit, the campaign told them the senator was committed every hour of every day until November. Topeka's KTWU claims it offered to broadcast a debate, but got the same response as KSNT.
Why, being a skilled debater, would Brownback not want to engage Holland? And why, after pressing for debates, would Holland withdraw from the one chance to go head to head with Brownback?
Another reason debates are endangered is that the candidates are focused elsewhere. Brownback's representative says the senator will tour regions of Kansas on the days KSNT suggested. Tours are good things but far from set in stone. Both campaigns might think there are better uses of their time if they can't manipulate formats for their candidate. Fundraising and local media opportunities are higher priorities.
Many campaigns also think that when they are leading, debates only offer a way down. They should remember sitting Gov. Bill Graves, who was up 30 percentage points in 1998 pre-debate polls. Graves debated state Rep. Tom Sawyer twice and extended his winning margin to more than 50 points. Debates can turn leads into mandates. Brownback's "non-refusal refusal" makes it look like the campaign is scared of Holland — not a message it wants to send.
Because televised ads don't inform, debates offer voters the most value when they are looking for candidate information. So the real loser in this mess is the Kansas voter.