Published June 15th, 2022 at 5:24 PM
Candidates for the Republican nomination for Kansas Attorney General are positioning themselves as two tested politicians versus a newcomer, albeit one with a lengthy track record as an assistant U.S. prosecutor.
The candidates completed a fast-paced, hour-long debate on Wednesday, moderated by Nick Haines, host of “Week in Review” on Kansas City PBS. The debate will be broadcast tonight at 7 p.m. on Channel 19.1.
The Johnson County Bar Association was also a sponsor of the debate, held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Overland Park, Kansas.
Much of the back and forth revolved around each candidate’s electability in the general election; how, if elected, they will manage the state’s response to the expected reversal of Roe v. Wade; and their view of the role of the Kansas attorney general.
The position is up for grabs because current Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is running for governor.
Former Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Kansas state Sen. Kellie Warren both advocated for using attorney general’s office to oppose federal overreach by President Joe Biden’s administration.
“If I’m elected, Kansas and Texas will be standing shoulder to shoulder,” Kobach said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has led conservative efforts around the nation to file lawsuits against many of Biden’s proposals, including multiple challenges on immigration.
Warren, an attorney, emphasized her legislative record in helping to guide bills into law. Her depth of experience will allow her to “stand up and fight and win against the Biden administration.”
Warren chairs the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee.
Tony Mattivi, a former federal prosecutor, called turning the attorney general’s office toward the example of Texas “a phenomenally bad idea.”
Doing so, he said, would take resources away from other, traditional roles of the office, which has multiple divisions, such as consumer protection.
“The attorney general’s office is not a political springboard,” said Mattivi, who has extensive experience prosecuting terrorism cases for the federal government, including al Qaeda’s 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
Mattivi said that he did agree with pushing back against the Biden administration on the eviction moratorium due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of the three, Kobach has extensive experience as an elected official and as a repeat candidate for office.
He served as the Kansas Secretary of State from 2011 to 2019. But he lost a bid to be governor to then state Sen. Laura Kelly in 2018, a fact that provided repeated fodder for Warren during the debate.
“We cannot afford to nominate a Republican who loses to a Democrat,” Warren said.
Warren said that the Kansas legislature has been unable to pass conservative bills because a Democratic governor could veto those bills. The scenario, she said, was because Kobach lost the governorship to a Kelly.
Warren also emphasized that Kobach has lost many court challenges to laws that he helped craft.
“Kris Kobach loses elections, and he loses in the courtroom,” Warren said.
Kobach, in reply, pointed to his lengthy history of outside legal work as a strength, along with his time as a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
He helped draft legislation in other states and defended some statues when they were challenged in the courts.
Kobach also advised former President Donald Trump, especially on immigration policy.
The verbal jousting between Kobach and Warren at one point led Mattivi to note, “I will lean back and let these two slug it out.”
He also proposed that if voters are OK with the state’s chief law enforcement official being a politician, Warren and Kobach are “very well qualified.”
Mattivi said that both Kobach and Warren have electability issues because some Democrat votes and those of moderates will be necessary for victory in the general election.
“There are people on this stage who will tell you what you want to hear and not what you need to know,” Mattivi said.
When the topic shifted to gun rights and protecting the Second Amendment, Mattivi cited his time as a paramedic treating children who had been gunshot victims. The reference rang as a nod to the horror of school shootings, such as the recent deaths of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.
“You can be pro-Second Amendment and against mass murder,” Mattivi said.
All three candidates expressed optimism that voters will approve the “Value Them Both” amendment, which will also be on the Aug. 2 ballot.
The Kansas Constitution offers protections for abortions due to a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court that restricted the legislature from placing an “undue burden” on a person’s ability to obtain an abortion.
Anti-abortion advocates have sought a way to reverse or counter the ruling.
The proposed amendment was crafted in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. If approved by voters, the amendment would then give the Kansas legislature a route to revisit laws regulating access to abortion and also possibly head off legal challenges.
Chris Mann is the sole Democrat in the attorney general’s race. Mann was an officer and a local prosecutor in Wyandotte County. He is running with a promise of keeping partisan politics out of the office.
The debate was the first of several that Haines will moderate as part of Kansas City PBS’ “On the Ballot,” initiative.
Kansas City PBS will provide comprehensive coverage of the upcoming midterm elections. Flatland, the station’s digital magazine, also will produce content to help voters understand the issues and candidate’s positions on the Aug. 2 primary ballot and in the general election.
Watch the full Republican attorney general primary debate tonight on KCPBS.
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.