Government & Politics

‘His social views were liberal.’ Candidate met with Dems before launching GOP run

Steve Watkins is the Republican candidate in Kansas’ 2nd District congressional race.
Steve Watkins is the Republican candidate in Kansas’ 2nd District congressional race. Steve for Kansas/YouTube

A GOP candidate for Congress in Kansas met with Democratic Party officials last year before launching his campaign, but he denies their claims that he ever considered running as a Democrat or professed socially liberal views at that meeting.

Three Kansas Democrats said they met with Steve Watkins, an Army veteran running as a Republican in Kansas’ 2nd District, at the Shawnee Democratic Party headquarters in Topeka in August 2017 when he was contemplating a run for the open seat.

“He was basically trying to feel us out and see if we’d support him for Congress,” said Ty Dragoo, the Democratic vice chair for the 2nd District.

“When he was talking to us, it was all the right stuff,” Dragoo said. “He supports sensible gun laws. He supports labor unions. … He sounded like a Kansas Democratic Party member. His social views were liberal. We talked about gay and lesbian rights and he was all for that.”

Watkins confirmed that he met with Dragoo in August 2017, but he disputed Dragoo’s characterization of events.

“I was not at any point looking to run as a Democrat, nor was I ever approached about running as a Democrat,” Watkins said in a phone interview. “I was taking some meetings with political types … and an associate advised me to reach out to Ty. At some point, I realized he had arranged the meeting to take place at the Democratic HQ. I didn’t back down from that. I’ve met with insurgents and warlords.”

Watkins said the conversation did delve into a broad range of policy issues, but he denied that he professed any progressive policy positions during the meeting.

“I remember them broadening the discussion to include more general policy, liberal policy, but I didn’t participate,” Watkins said.

Among the seven-person GOP field seeking the seat now held by U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who is retiring, Watkins is the only candidate to never hold elected office. He has repeatedly touted this status as a political outsider as a strength at voter forums.

Watkins is a registered Republican, but last year’s local elections in Topeka appear to be the first time he ever voted in Kansas, according to the state’s voter registration data. That election took place the same week he launched his campaign.

Watkins, who also has lived in Alaska and Massachusetts, said he could not remember whether he registered to vote in those states.

The Star could find no evidence that Watkins cast a ballot before last year, and the 41-year-old candidate said he could not remember if he had ever registered before in any state. He said during his time in the Army he was discouraged from participating in politics.

“We just stayed out of politics,” he said. “…I don’t remember if I was registered or not. … I don’t recall. I was a young Army officer and that’s what my focus was,” said Watkins, who left the Army in 2004, according to his LinkedIn page.

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

Despite the fact that he can’t remember voting, Watkins said he was well-known for his conservative views as a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in the two years before he launched his campaign.

“I had just gotten done with a master’s degree at Harvard, where I had argued countless times against countless Democrats. … I was a very, very well-known Republican in the Harvard student body,” he said as evidence that he wouldn’t have contemplated a run as a Democrat.

Watkins said an adviser had told him that Dragoo was a transportation lobbyist. He said he met with Dragoo to learn more about transportation policy.

Dragoo serves as state legislative director for the Kansas chapter of SMART, a union that represents transportation workers. Watkins said he was unaware that Dragoo worked for a labor union until being told about it on the phone Thursday.

Dragoo contacted The Star about the 2017 meeting after seeing Watkins voice support for a Supreme Court ruling that limits the ability of public sector unions to collect fees.

Watkins “totally bamboozled me,” Dragoo said.

He also said that it was always clear that the discussion was being framed as a conversation about a potential run by Watkins as a Democrat and that Watkins adamantly voiced support for labor unions during that meeting.

“So let me get this straight, when we said, ‘Meet at the Shawnee Democratic Party,’ he didn’t have an inkling we were Democrats?” Dragoo said in a follow-up phone call.

Dragoo and other participants said the two-hour meeting had been set up by the Shawnee Democratic Party’s vice chair, Luke Domme, who also works as a business representative for the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ union.

Wakins “was kind of feeling out whether or not he was interested in running as a Democrat or Republican,” said Domme, who said he had met the candidate through mutual friends.

Sarah Coats, a Democratic candidate for the Kansas Legislature, was invited by Domme to participate in the meeting.

Coats recalled that Watkins expressed fiscal conservatism but more liberal views on social issues, such as LGBT rights.

“He said that he thought he was too much of a moderate, so he was really interested in being in the Democratic Party,” she said.

Watkins confirmed that Coats participated in the meeting.

“I was surprised that Sarah was there,” he said. “I didn’t understand why she was there.”

Watkins denied that Domme participated in the meeting. All of the other participants in the meeting say Domme was there and he set it up.

“The politics were middle of the road to me,” Domme said of Watkins. “I didn’t expect him to immediately swing to the Republicans.”

When Trump nominated federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court this week, Watkins said in a statement that he was excited to see Trump “nominate a strong conservative and constitutional originalist.”

“I urge the swamp politicians in the U.S. Senate to not play petty politics with the President’s nominee and drag out the confirmation through the midterm election,” he said in a campaign statement. “I urge the Senate to confirm Kavanaugh as soon as possible, cement the presence of conservatism on the Supreme Court for my generation, and cement President Trump’s legacy.”

Coats recently accused Watkins of being a fraud on social media because of his alleged policy changes since the meeting.

“I’d say it again to his face,” Coats said, contending that voters of both parties should be skeptical of his positions.

“I don’t know if he was a plant or just a really bad actor, or if he’s just flipping. I wouldn’t trust the guy.”

Watkins announced his campaign as a Republican in November, four months after the meeting took place.

Shortly after that, he was named to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s list of “Young Guns,” a group of candidates that the national party has identified as top prospects for congressional races.

The NRCC did not comment on Watkins’ meeting with Democrats, but noted that two other candidates in the race, state Sens. Steve Fitzgerald and Caryn Tyson, are also part of the Young Guns program.

Dragoo said he tried to persuade Watkins to pursue other offices as a Democrat based on his resume as a West Point graduate who served in Afghanistan, including governor and secretary of state, because the party was already coalescing behind former Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis in the congressional race.

Dragoo said Watkins began asking highly specific questions about Davis’ campaign and his level of support among Democrats. Dragoo said he now thinks that Watkins went to the meeting as way to gather information on Davis.

Watkins confirmed that he asked questions about Davis during the meeting, but he said that he did not recall specifically what he asked.

He also contended that “the only reason they’re trying to out me” about last year’s meeting is the because the Democrats “want to damage me because they know I stand the best chance of beating Paul Davis.”

Watkins’ father, a Topeka physician with the same first name, has put $100,000 into a super PAC intended to elect his son to Congress.

“If he was liberal, he wouldn’t see a dime of my money and he knows that,” the elder Watkins told The Star earlier this month.

Dragoo also claimed that Watkins touted the fact that his fiancee, Fong Liu, an OB-GYN, had received an award from Planned Parenthood during her time as a volunteer in Alabama more than a decade ago, a detail that would later surface on a conservative blog.

On the campaign trail, Watkins has strongly opposed abortion.

“I’m proud to be 100% pro-life. I love my fiancee. But we don’t agree on everything. Especially this,” Watkins told The Star in April. “Attacks on my family and smears from scared establishment insiders are swamp campaigning 101.”

The author of the blog, Danedri Herbert, has now joined Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s campaign for governor.

Neither Coats nor Domme specifically remembered Watkins discussing his fiancee’s work for Planned Parenthood during the two-hour meeting in Topeka. However, Coats said that Watkins “said that he was for women’s health” and pointed to Liu’s background as OB-GYN.

Watkins, who married Liu this year, denied that he brought her up during the meeting with the Democrats or that he expressed support for abortion.

“I’m not pro-choice at all. I’m unequivocally pro-life. And I don’t recall saying anything,” he said.

Liu, who works in Massachusetts, donated $110 to ActBlue, a Democratic political action committee, the same week that Watkins launched his campaign. The money was earmarked for Democrat Doug Jones, who was running for U.S. Senate in her home state of Alabama.

Liu also gave $2,700 to Watkins’ congressional campaign a month later, according to records from the Federal Election Commission.

Watkins said Liu splits her time between Kansas and Massachusetts. He compared asking questions about his wife’s politics to tactics used by the mafia.

“I love my wife. We staunchly disagree on some key issues,” he said. “These issues are not up for debate between she and I. She respects me as a thinker and a leader.”

Lindsay Wise, of McClatchy’s Washington bureau, contributed to this article.