Government & Politics

GOP candidates in Kansas congressional race give similar sales pitches in Leavenworth

Republican candidates in Kansas' 2nd congressional district were welcomed to a forum last week in Leavenworth by Dan Caldwell, the executive director for Concerned Veterans for America. From left to right: Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, Vernon Fields, Curtis Hanson (representing Rep. Kevin Jones), Sen. Dennis Pyle, Sen. Caryn Tyson, Doug Mays and Steve Watkins.
Republican candidates in Kansas' 2nd congressional district were welcomed to a forum last week in Leavenworth by Dan Caldwell, the executive director for Concerned Veterans for America. From left to right: Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, Vernon Fields, Curtis Hanson (representing Rep. Kevin Jones), Sen. Dennis Pyle, Sen. Caryn Tyson, Doug Mays and Steve Watkins. blowry@kcstar.com

Multiple candidates borrowed campaign lines from President Donald Trump Wednesday night at a candidate forum in Leavenworth for Republicans seeking an open congressional seat.

The seven-candidate Republican primary to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins in Kansas’ 2nd congressional district lacks a clear frontrunner, while Democrats have coalesced around Paul Davis, a well-funded candidate who won the district as a candidate for governor four years ago.

The event at the Riverfront Community Center was organized by Americans For Prosperity and Concerned Veterans For America, two groups that are part of the network of conservative advocacy groups linked to Wichita’s Koch family.

But the candidates rejected the notion that the forum functioned as an audition for financial support from the Kansas family with billions in assets and former Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays expressed surprise when told the veterans group had a connection to the Kochs.

Jeff Glendening, the state director of AFP, said it was unlikely that the organization would play an active role in the district ahead of the August primary.

The candidates agreed on most of the issues, uniformly voicing support for efforts to restrict public sector unions, reduce federal spending and to expand a program that allows veterans to seek private health care options through their Veterans Administration benefits, a key policy goal of CVA.

Mays referred to the national debt as the greatest security risk facing the nation.

“It's not North Korea and their missiles, it's the national debt,” he said.

Steve Watkins, an Army veteran who has raced in the Iditarod, tried to distinguish himself from the rest of field by touting the fact that he was the only one of the candidates to never hold an elected office.

“I am the outsider in the race. There's no other outsider but me," he said.

The race pits the political newcomer against Mays, the former speaker; state Sens. Steve Fitzgerald, Dennis Pyle, Caryn Tyson; state Rep. Kevin Jones; and Basehor City Council Member Vernon Fields.

All of the candidates were present at Wednesday’s forum except for Jones, who was represented by his campaign manager after his wife gave birth to a son Tuesday.

Jones' campaign manager, Carl Hanson, pointed to the fact that his candidate beat an 18-year Democratic incumbent in his first legislative race in 2012 as a reason why he'd be competitive against Davis.

Davis released an internal poll the day after the forum that showed him polling with higher name recognition and favorability than the GOP candidates. The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, showed Davis with a 5-point lead over the Fitzgerald, the only candidate who was compared against Davis in a head to head race.

Fields touted his status as a registered nurse and said that he grew up on welfare, but went on to earn a doctorate degree.

One of the few areas of policy disagreement between the candidates was over the authorization of military force.

Several candidates, including Fitzgerald who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, said Congress needs exercise more oversight over decisions to deploy the armed forces.

Watkins, on the other hand, said dysfunction in Congress prevents the legislative body from acting quickly enough when a decision is needed.

Watkins repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp” when faced with policy questions, an echo of a line used by Trump in 2016.

Asked after the forum to explain what he tangibly means by the phrase, Watkins called the phrase “an overarching blanket philosophy.”

As the forum went on, other candidates began using the line as well. "I'm not looking to go to the swamp to work for anybody other than you," said Fields in his closing statement.

The current and former state lawmakers on the stage pointed to their legislative records as the reason why voters should support them.

“I think it helps that I've been through the ringer a few times and stood up to a number of important people, not the least, a couple governors,” said Mays, who served as speaker when Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was governor.

Fitzgerald noted that he has refused to participate in the state pension system and he pointed to his outspoken opposition to abortion in the statehouse, which has occasionally garnered national attention and criticism as he has made comparisons between abortion providers and Nazis.

"I've taken the hits for being pro-life and I've given some hits as well. People say I'm extreme because I've taken those hits,” Fitzgerald said.

The event took place in Fitzgerald's Senate district and several attendees had praise for their state senator.

"I'm kind of biased. I've always supported Steve Fitzgerald," said Dana Meredith, a 69-year-old homemaker. "He's very conservative. He's pro-life. He's pro-second amendment. Family, faith, freedom. All the things that I care about."

Pyle, who has served in the Legislature for 16 years, said that he had fought and voted against every tax increase he has faced during his time in Topeka.

"One thing you'll note about me is my rhetoric matches my record,” he said.

Tyson, the tax chair in the Kansas Senate, appeared to reference this line a minute later when she said, “I don't have rhetoric. I state facts."

Tyson said the district needs “a legislator who is going to dig in, not just complain about problems.”

During her closing statement, one fact that Tyson felt the need to state was that she had no connection to the company with the same name that sells chicken.

Former Gov. Sam Brownback’s failed effort to bring a chicken plant to the district last year has caused confusion on the campaign trail that she is anxious to clear up.

"I am not chicken. I am not related to Tyson Chicken,” she said to laughter.

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