Kansas Treasurer LaTurner Trades Senate Race For 2020 GOP Primary With U.S. Rep. Watkins

Sep 4, 2019
Originally published on September 5, 2019 3:43 pm

Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner is ending his campaign for the U.S. Senate and will instead launch a primary challenge against Republican Congressman Steve Watkins.

LaTurner said he’s switching his efforts to run for the 2nd District, arguing that Watkins isn’t running a good campaign and it could cost the Republican Party the seat. 

"Second District residents deserve a solid conservative fighter they can count on," LaTurner said in a news release, adding later, "We must nominate a Republican that can win the general election and fight for our principles."

Watkins is in his first term and the announcement comes a week after former Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer publically urged LaTurner to challenge Watkins in next year’s election. 

The decision ultimately affects two races: the competition for the U.S. House seat and the race to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts. LaTurner leaving the Senate race takes one of the high-profile candidates out of that competition, although it still includes a wide field of Republicans

Watkins' campaign fired back after LaTurner’s announcement, calling the treasurer a career politician who’s focused on climbing the political ladder. 

"The contrast could not be more clear — a life of service versus a life of self-service," Watkins spokesman Bryan Piligra said. “Congressman Watkins is a war veteran, engineer, and conservative leader who votes in support of our President 93% of the time."

Watkins has been a point of some controversy. During his 2018 campaign, he faced allegations of sexual misconduct, as well as reports that he may have exaggerated his business experience and his background as an adventurer

Still, Watkins shrugged those off and went on to win a narrow victory over Democrat Paul Davis.

“You put all that together,” said University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller, “and Steve Watkins comes across as someone who heading into 2020 could possibly be vulnerable in a primary.”

What does surprise Miller is that Colyer publicly called for the primary challenge.

“Typically, the party gets behind incumbents and supports them,” Miller said.

A former Statehouse staffer, Abbie Hodgson, is running for the 2nd District seat for Democrats. She came forward in 2017 with accusations about sexual harassment in the Kansas Legislature — accusations that helped prompt legislative leaders to schedule sexual harassment training and update policies. 

The most recent financial report showed LaTurner had almost a half-million dollars for his Senate campaign, which can be rolled into the House campaign. That’s about double what Watkins reported for his re-election bid. In addition, Watkins still had $270,000 in debt from personal loans to the campaign.

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda or email skoranda (at) ku (dot) edu.

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