What counts as a debate? Depends on who you ask.
In the race for the Kansas 1st Congressional District, Republican state Sen. Tim Huelskamp and former Salina mayor, Democrat Alan Jilka, have different tallies when counting the number of past and future debates.
Huelskamp claims to have participated in 10 debates since declaring his candidacy, in which Jilka participated in three. One of those was a televised forum at Fort Hays State University on April 26.
With two more debates on the calendar, the Huelskamp campaign claims it will have debated Jilka five times before Election Day.
Huelskamp faced a primary battle with six other Republican candidates before securing the nomination. Jilka won his nomination unopposed.
“We’ve already finalized our debate schedule and we’ve come to a fair and reasonable number of debates, which is five total for the course of the campaign,” said Huelskamp campaign manager David Ray.
The two remaining events will be at Emporia State University and in Salina. The Emporia event is slated for 7 p.m. Monday, and the Salina event will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 21 and sponsored by the Salina League of Women Voters and the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce.
However, Don Weiser, senior vice president of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce, said he does not consider the format to be a debate at all.
“All the questions have to be directed at all the candidates,” Weiser said. “You can’t just have the question directed at one candidate. The questions have to be so both of them can answer them. It can’t be directed at just one. Then there’s no rebuttal by any of the candidates to any of the other candidates. It’s just a q-and-a type thing.”
The organizers for the Emporia forum also say the lack of formal rebuttal time prevents them from calling their event a debate. However, Rob Catlett, director of the Centers for Economic Education and Community Research at Emporia, said candidates will take time for rebuttal regardless of whether time is built in.
“I don’t know the formal distinction between a debate and a forum, but this is an opportunity for candidates to explain their position on issues and explain the differences in their positions,” Catlett said.
Emporia Associated Student Government president Jonathan Rivers said the event is designed for candidates to focus on their positions rather than the positions of their opponents.
“For the moment, right now, we’re calling it a forum,” Rivers said. “That’s more the environment we’re going for simply because we see it as an educational opportunity for students.”
Jilka claims Huelskamp is intentionally avoiding debates involving direct rebuttal. An Oct. 4 live televised debate on KWCH will proceed without Huelskamp, instead involving only Jilka and Libertarian candidate Jack Warner. The Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Hays American Democracy project also both failed to arrange debates. In both cases, Huelskamp had scheduling problems.
“I think that he doesn’t want people outside southwest Kansas to know much about him,” Jilka said. “He apparently thinks he can let people vote for him because he has an ‘R’ by his name. He is very much aware of the fact that the more people know about him, the less they’re going to like him.”
Senior Jacob Kessler, the student director for the American Democracy Project, wanted to bring in several candidates, including Huelskamp and Jilka, to participate in debates.
When asked how things are going, he replied, “They aren’t.”
He said he would have liked to arrange a debate during the general election cycle since he does not consider the format of the Fort Hays forum in April to have been a real debate.
“I don’t think I’d necessarily consider (the April forum) a debate, especially because in that forum, it was the Republicans against themselves,” Kessler said. “Mr. Jilka got a lot of free time because he didn’t have an opponent. It benefited him because he didn’t have to worry about any kind of fallout from his race.
“So to say that that debate was between specific candidates? No. Not really, because even in that forum it was set up in such a way that it was very difficult to call a candidate out on issues that you would normally see come out in a debate.”
However, Ray argued that the context of the Fort Hays April forum still provided audience members and viewers with information they would need in the election. He also said the fact it occurred during the primaries does not make it any less a debate.
“In the three (events) that I mentioned, the only Democratic candidate in the race was participating in those forums,” Ray said. “So, when both parties are participating in a debate, you can hardly say that it’s catered just to one side.”
“Two of the three debates we did with Alan Jilka were carried on live television. Now, last I checked, it wasn’t just Republicans that watched television.”
A department at Kansas State University will tape the forum at Emporia. SHPTV plans to air the tape at 8 p.m. Oct. 5 and again at 7 p.m. Oct. 27. There are no plans to broadcast the Salina forum.