In moderating or being a panelist for 17 televised political candidate debates over the past 15 years, there’s one thing I’ve learned: Be ready for anything. That being said, I wasn’t ready for what happened on the evening of Tuesday, July 14.
KSNT-TV had taken on the task of running a 2nd District Congressional Republican primary debate — the only scheduled TV debate for any primary race in Kansas this year — between incumbent Congressman Steve Watkins and his challengers, Jake LaTurner and Dennis Taylor.
Coordinating a TV debate during a pandemic is not easy, and there were numerous factors to consider and plan for. Candidates were placed six feet apart, and separate screen boxes were used so TV viewers could see candidates reacting to each other. There of course was no studio audience, and strict limitations were placed on who could be in the studio.
However, we all felt that the logistical challenges were worth it. In a time when in-person campaigning is limited, and candidate forums, town halls and rallies almost nonexistent, TV debates are more important than ever for voters to size up the candidates and hear what they have to say.
The debate was scheduled to air live at 6:30 pm. About 30 minutes before airtime, news came that Watkins had been charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor by Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay. The voting fraud charges stemmed from Watkins having listed a UPS store address as his home address on his voting registration form in 2019 and subsequently voting in a local election. There was also a charge alleging Watkins obstructed the investigation.
We quickly re-wrote the first question of the debate after deciding that there was no need to beat around the bush; viewers would want to immediately hear from the candidates about this.
Saying it was the "Elephant in the room apparently tonight," I asked each candidate for his response to these charges. Now, due to a random spin before the debate, former Shawnee County Commissioner Dennis Taylor got the question first.
Surprisingly, Taylor was not interested in engaging on the topic, saying, "I believe the focus should be on issues related to congressional action," that he wanted to talk about the coronavirus and his plan for a contact-tracing program, and that activities such as the felony charges were a "sideshow."
Next up was Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner. He said the charges were so serious that Watkins was effectively out of the race, arguing that Watkins would have no chance against Democrat Michelle De La Isla in the fall general election.
As for Watkins, he said, "I’ve haven’t done anything wrong" and that after realizing he had entered the wrong address, "We fixed it." He then said the timing of it all was "suspicious" and "highly political" and intimated that LaTurner and Kagay were in cahoots because they shared a political consultant company.
Within a few days of the debate, Watkins had a TV ad on the air officially labeling Kagay a "corrupt prosecutor" and alleging that LaTurner had paid off Kagay. No evidence was proffered.
So the question is, is it likely that Kagay would risk not only his career but his reputation and possibly even jail time to charge Watkins and release those charges right before the debate? Or is it likely that, as with TV debates, anything can happen at any time?
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.