Government & Politics

Kansas candidate’s father spends $100,000 in effort to get son elected to Congress

Steve Watkins, a candidate for Congress in Kansas' 2nd District, competed in the 2015 Iditarod race in Alaska.
Steve Watkins, a candidate for Congress in Kansas' 2nd District, competed in the 2015 Iditarod race in Alaska.

The father of a Republican congressional candidate is the sole donor and founder of a political action committee behind a $64,000 ad campaign on behalf of his son’s candidacy.

Steve Watkins, an Army veteran who has competed in the Iditarod, is one of seven candidates vying for the Republican nomination for the open seat in Kansas’ 2nd congressional district.

Kansans Can Do Anything PAC, a political action committee that formed in April, began airing television ads last week in support of Watkins’ candidacy in the crowded primary to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins.

Records filed with the Federal Election Commission this week show that the PAC’s sole donor is Steven Watkins, a Topeka doctor and the candidate’s father.

The elder Watkins confirmed in a phone call Monday that he set up the PAC as way to support his son’s campaign.

“If my son didn’t share my beliefs in the importance of the Constitution … I wouldn’t contribute a dime to him even though I love him with all my heart,” Watkins said.

The elder Watkins donated $100,000 to the PAC 12 days after its formation. No other donors are listed on the most recent FEC filing.

“I want the money that I’ve been lucky enough to earn to be of some value to the country,” Watkins said.

He said that the PAC has been reaching out to potential donors and has received positive responses so far, but as of Monday he remains the only donor. He said that he might donate more in the future.

Watkins said that he chose to form a PAC as a way to get around the contribution limits he would have faced if he'd steered the money directly to his son’s campaign.

“Steve’s a self-made man. He doesn’t need me. But I want a legacy of conservatism,” he said.

The younger Watkins also has devoted financial resources to his run, personally lending $175,100 to his campaign last year.

During a candidate forum in Leavenworth last week, the younger Watkins repeatedly touted his status as a political outsider and the only candidate in the race to never hold elected office.

Watkins' campaign did not directly answer a question about whether the candidate was aware that his father had set up a PAC to support his candidacy. The campaign issued a general statement that said the candidate "is proud of his Kansas roots and the strong relationships that he has developed throughout his lifetime in communities all across the district. ... While Steve welcomes the support of anyone who shares his values, his sole focus has always been on our campaign, not independent efforts or outside groups."

The elder Watkins lauded his son’s background as a West Point graduate who has earned graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“He’s just a real leader. He’s special. … He’s about the best leader I’ve ever seen,” the candidate’s father said.

The phenomenon of candidates’ parents funding super PACS on behalf of their candidacies has become increasingly common in the years since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, said Brendan Fischer, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform program.

“Before Citizens United, Steve Watkins’ dad could only give $2,700 to his campaign, and then he could give another $5,000 to a PAC,” Fischer said.

But the 2010 ruling enabled individual donors to spend unlimited amounts of money through super PACs, and that has allowed wealthy families to make a “mockery of our campaign finance laws,” Fischer said.

A Democratic candidate in the Philadelphia suburbs, for example, is being backed by a PAC that has received nearly all of its funding from her mother.

“Rich parents shouldn’t be a prerequisite to mounting a campaign, but that’s increasingly the case,” Fischer said.

Kansans Can Do Anything PAC has spent roughly $70,000 since its formation.

The bulk of it went to a $64,000 media campaign in support of Watkins’ candidacy that was paid to Kansas City-based Ax Media, an off-shot from Axiom Strategies, a firm founded by Republican strategist Jeff Roe that does significant political work in Missouri and Kansas.

Axiom received an additional $2,000 from the PAC for logo design.

The media buy included $17,100 for television ads on Topeka-based WIBW-TV through July 10, according to the station’s disclosure to the Federal Communications Commission.