TOPEKA — U.S. Rep. Ron Estes of Wichita has endorsed state treasurer Jake LaTurner over incumbent Steve Watkins in the 2nd District congressional race.
Estes cited the three felony charges and one misdemeanor charge filed against Watkins this week. He said Watkins' eastern Kansas seat will be in danger if he wins the GOP primary.
Watkins' legal problems stem from his having listed a UPS Inc. postal box as his residence on a state voter registration form.
Estes' endorsement on Thursday came a day after Watkins' attorneys sought to raise doubts about the criminal case. The attorney filed a motion Wednesday night asserting that Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay has a conflict of interest and that the case is politically motivated, The Kansas City Star reports.
The charges against Watkins, whom fellow Republicans are pushing to oust from the seat he won in 2018, relate to an investigation into whether he voted illegally in a 2019 municipal election. The criminal complaint said he provided false information to a sheriff's deputy who was looking into whether he broke state election laws.
The first hearing in the case is set for Dec. 3, a month after the November general election, and Estes said Watkins would have a difficult time doing his job in Congress until the case is resolved.
"He needs to focus on putting his legal problems behind him," Estes said in a statement. "While he certainly deserves a fair hearing in a court of law, this process won't play out until after the general election and Republicans cannot put this seat at risk by nominating a candidate charged with multiple felonies."
Kagay, a Republican who will stand for re-election this year, announced the charges shortly before Watkins was set to appear in a televised primary debate.
Watkins has called the charges "hyper-political" and said he expects to be exonerated.
The motion from Watkins' team points to the timing of the charges and to connections between Kagay and LaTurner through a shared direct mail vendor. LaTurner called the assertion absurd Wednesday, noting that hundreds of Republicans use the firm.
Watkins filed a state voter registration form in late August 2019 listing the UPS postal box as his residential address. The postal box still was listed as his residential address when he cast a mailed-in ballot that included a Topeka City Council race in November.
Watkins and his staff have said he inadvertently listed his mailing address instead of his residential address by mistake. He later corrected his address to an apartment, but it is not the same City Council district as the UPS store.