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Outsider Kansas Republican Congressman Faces A Challenge From Fellow Conservatives

The Democratic (left) and Republican candidates for the Aug. 4 primary for Kansas' 2nd Congressional District.
Crysta Henthorne
The Democratic (left) and Republican candidates for the Aug. 4 primary for Kansas' 2nd Congressional District.

LAWRENCE, Kansas — Freshman U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins is in two unusual situations: His re-election bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat is being complicated by two primary challengers and opposition from some in the GOP establishment.

But Watkins is also charged with three felonies related to registering to vote using a Topeka UPS store as his address.

Typically, sitting members of Congress get challenged over ideological differences. But in this case, the man who ran in 2018 as a conservative outsider in the mold of President Donald Trump is up against a fellow conservative, Republican Jake LaTurner, and longtime government official Dennis Taylor.

Former Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer publicly called for LaTurner, who is currently Kansas’ treasurer, to run against Watkins, saying LaTurner had the best chance of keeping the seat in Republican hands.

Watkins, who narrowly won in the 2018 general election with the help of big ad spending from his father, isn’t concerned by some political lifers lining up behind LaTurner.

“They just want to cling to power,” Watkins said. “That’s why we’ve seen the support behind Jake that we’ve seen.”

LaTurner believes Watkins hasn’t supported Trump enough.

“What this race is actually about is a real conservative who’s going to get things done versus someone who’s posing as a conservative,” LaTurner said, “and who in his first year has made bad votes and put himself in a terrible position to win this seat and keep it in Republican hands.”

Watkins’ ads include video of Trump endorsing him during an event in Topeka before the 2018 election, and he frequently mentions he’s an honorary co-chair of Trump’s re-election campaign in Kansas.

“I vote with Trump 96% of the time,” Watkins said. “I’ve met with Trump. I've been in the Oval Office.”

LaTurner said there’s more to it; the Kansas News Service spoke to him before the voter fraud charges, but he pointed to the investigation.

“There are major concerns that people of the 2nd District should have with their current congressman,” LaTurner said in an interview. “We hear it every day. We think people are hungry for a change.”

Watkins told the Kansas News Service, again, before any charges were filed, that LaTurner is trying to leverage a simple mistake, and that he accidentally listed a mailing address instead of his home address.

Watkins, who called the timing of the charges “clearly hyper-political,” repeated his justification during a 2nd District debate on Tuesday, July 14.

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “As soon as I realized that I had put my mailing address instead of my physical address, we fixed it.”

“I look forward to clearing my name,” Watkins added. “Truly, the timing is suspicious.”

Former state Senator Steve Fitzgerald was one of the six Republicans that Watkins beat in the 2018 primary. He’s backing LaTurner.

Fitzgerald said he’s not vindictive — he just thinks LaTurner has a better chance to win and has experience on tax and gun rights issues from his time in the Kansas Senate.

“LaTurner is the type of person we want,” Fitzgerald said in an interview. “He’s got a beautiful family, a solid reputation in his community and he’s got not a hint of scandal at all.”

To Watkins, the difference is he’s still new to politics, while LaTurner seems to be climbing the political ladder.

“This is the story of the lifetime of service, which I’ve done both in the military and now new into politics, versus the lifetime of self service,” Watkins said. “He’s never had a job outside politics.”

In addition to touting his ties to Trump, Watkins is touting his work to approve the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaced NAFTA and involves trade markets that are important to Kansas agriculture. Watkins was responsible for counting votes among freshman lawmakers and working to convince them to support the plan.

The third Republican in the race, Taylor, said LaTurner and Watkins aren’t talking enough about the biggest issue: the coronavirus.

“Our economy, if it’s not in the ditch, it’s heading that direction,” Taylor said in an interview. “And they’re not speaking, either one of them, to what really is the crisis of the moment.”

Taylor worked in the administrations of Republican governors Mike Hayden and Sam Brownback. He calls himself a pragmatic conservative who would support the president when it makes sense for Kansas.

The government should be investing in infrastructure, Taylor said, and a national coronavirus tracing program that will create jobs and identify coronavirus hot spots.

“We’re going in the wrong direction, and a lot of that is because we haven’t put the manpower into trying to figure out where the virus is and isolate it and kill it,” Taylor said.

The winner of the Aug. 4 Republican primary will face the winner of the Democratic contest between Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla and James Windholz from Lawrence.

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 15 updated with details about Watkins facing felony charges.

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter@kprkoranda.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3

Stephen Koranda is the managing editor of the Kansas News Service, based at KCUR. He has nearly 20 years of experience in public media as a reporter and editor.