The Buzz

In sign of GOP division, former Gov. Colyer urges LaTurner to run for Watkins’ seat

Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner said Tuesday he would consider a run for 2nd congressional seat after former Gov. Jeff Colyer’s urging. An updated version of this story can be found here.

Former Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer took the highly unusual step Tuesday of calling for a Republican candidate to drop out of the race for an open Senate seat and instead challenge an incumbent House Republican in a primary.

Colyer’s public call for Treasurer Jake LaTurner to exit the Senate race and run against Rep. Steve Watkins comes as the freshman Republican has been battling a whisper campaign.

Colyer, a Johnson County Republican who served as Kansas governor for 11 months, did not refer to Watkins by name in a statement calling on LaTurner to seek the seat. He noted Watkins’ lackluster fundraising and made a vague reference to poor coalition-building.

“Despite the fact that President Trump carried the 2nd Congressional District 56% - 37%, a 19 point margin, the current Representative squeaked by with a 2-point victory in 2018. The first eight months of his time in Congress have seen poor fundraising and a lack of coalition building,” Colyer said.

The former governor declined an interview request to elaborate on his decision to encourage a primary against Watkins, who last week hit back against rumors that he would resign. Colyer’s spokesman said the former governor had not informed LaTurner of his plans to send the release before sending it.

Watkins’ chief of staff, Jim Joice, said that Watkins defeated the Democrats’ strongest candidate in more than a decade when be beat Paul Davis despite the former state representative’s money advantage.

“Winning is what Watkins does. It is no surprise insiders are once again trying to force out an outsider. Kansans are sick and tired of these attempted political swamp chess moves,” Joice said in a statement. “Steve Watkins has fought for this country, fought for the sanctity of life, and fought for our second amendment rights.”

LaTurner has raised roughly $500,000 since launching his Senate campaign in January. He could steer this money toward a House race under Federal Election Commission rules.

Watkins raised more than $300,000 during the same period, but his campaign is still roughly $270,000 in debt from substantial personal loans he made to finance his 2018 race.

Watkins, a first-time candidate, won the seat after prevailing in a seven-way GOP primary against more established competition. Local Republican officials were open with their concerns about the Army veteran after a string of news stories raised questions about Watkins’ business background and political views.

“I’m willing to give him a term,” Wilson County GOP chair Kris Marple told The Star in October of last year. “We’re just talking two years. If we come to find out that stuff’s true and he’s really not what he says he is, we’ll replace him in two years, I guess.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee said in an email that it does not “comment on Republican primaries, real or hypothetical.”

Colyer said in his statement that voters in the district “are solid, conservative folks who deserve to be represented by a Republican that shares their values.” He pointed to LaTurner, the state’s treasurer and native of Southeast Kansas, as the candidate who’d be best suited to keep the seat in GOP hands.

If LaTurner drops out of the Senate race, it could help Republicans avoid the kind of fractured field it faced last year when Colyer lost the gubernatorial primary to then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach by roughly 300 votes. Kobach is now running for the Senate.

“This would help our state in two ways—by giving us a viable conservative option in the Second District and helping to clear the logjam in the Senate race,” Colyer said in his statement.

Colyer officially announced Monday that he would not pursue a run for Senate.

Chris Reeves, Kansas’ Democratic national committeeman, said in a text message that Colyer’s statement confirms that Republicans have been the ones behind the whisper campaign to discredit Watkins.

Watkins held a town hall in Topeka Monday following a week of so-far-unsubstantiated rumors circulating about his personal life. On Friday, he pushed back against speculation in political circles that he would resign.

Asked by a reporter after the event if he knows where the rumors are coming from, Watkins responded: “I don’t know.”

Watkins didn’t directly address the situation during the town hall – and he was not asked about it by audience members.

“Politics is emotional, I get that. But the more emotion gets heightened, the more we scream at each other, the more ridiculous allegations are made, the worse off we are,” Watkins told the town hall audience of about 50.

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.