Government & Politics

Newcomer Watkins faces Republican backlash in Kansas’ 2nd District congressional race

Steve Watkins is one of seven Republican candidates for Congress in Kansas’ 2nd District.
Steve Watkins is one of seven Republican candidates for Congress in Kansas’ 2nd District.

Some Republican activists in a Kansas congressional district Democrats hope to flip in November are staging a revolt over the possibility that GOP voters will nominate a former Army ranger and political newcomer whose father is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get him elected.

The backlash against candidate Steve Watkins has intensified as Tuesday’s primary approaches in the 2nd District of eastern Kansas. With Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins not seeking re-election, Democrats see the seat as a prime pickup opportunity, even though President Donald Trump won the district by nearly 17 percentage points in 2016.

One of Watkins’ opponents has a website questioning his Republican credentials, and another calls him a “fraud.” Forty local GOP leaders signed a letter this week expressing their concern about him.

Critics question whether Watkins is the conservative he says he is, and he’s never voted in a partisan election in Kansas, having registered last fall. His opponents are upset that his father, a Topeka physician, has contributed more than $587,000 to a political action committee that is boosting his son’s candidacy with television ads.

“Clearly, this is the way the affluent get their middle-aged kids out of the basement,” said state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and one of Watkins’ primary foes. Later, he added, “He’s a charlatan, a fraud and an opportunist.”

But Fitzgerald also said the newcomer probably is leading. The GOP field has seven candidates and because Kansas doesn’t hold runoff elections, it’s possible to be nominated with less than 30 percent of the vote.

The Republican winner will face Democrat Paul Davis, an attorney and a former Kansas House minority leader who carried the district when he narrowly lost the 2014 governor’s race. Davis has raised almost $1.6 million in contributions.

Watkins, a 41-year-old engineer, said Thursday that the race “has gone ugly.” In May, he was comparing his military-outsider profile to that of Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb , who won a special election in Pennsylvania earlier this year, suggesting voters want military leadership in Congress.

Watkins served a year in Afghanistan before becoming a defense contractor and consultant there and in Iraq. He’s raced in Alaska’s Iditarod dog-sled race and once attempted to scale Mount Everest. His public remarks are peppered with tributes to military comrades, and he praises Trump regularly.

“What we’re seeing is the career politicians and their supporters doing everything they can, even if it’s unethical, to smear the front-runner,” Watkins said.

The race has become notable for the involvement of Watkins’ father through the Kansans Can Do Anything PAC , formed in April by an executive of a GOP-leaning media firm. Watkins’ father was its only listed contributor through mid-July — and the name mirrors one of the candidate’s campaign slogans.

Watkins said he doesn’t know about the PAC’s operations because, as the candidate, he cannot under federal law.

“What he is doing with his money is contributing to an ideology with the intent of shaping the world we live in,” Watkins said.

But Fitzgerald sees Watkins as “going over the top” in his rhetoric and is far from alone in being suspicious of him.

“Kansas congressional candidates should have a voting history in Kansas — and a voting history as a Republican — before receiving widespread support from Kansas Republicans,” the letter from local GOP leaders said.

Watkins’ only history of voting in Kansas was in the November nonpartisan municipal election. He said he was not politically active because of his military service and work as contractor, where he was “focused on keeping my men and women safe.”

He also has faced questions about whether he initially considered jumping into politics as a Democrat. The Kansas City Star reported in July that three Democrats said Watkins had met with them in August 2017 and professed liberal views on social issues.

“That is a major flag,” said another primary foe, state Sen. Caryn Tyson. “One way or the other, he was lying, either to them or to us.”

On her website questioning Watkins’ GOP credentials, Tyson has posted audio of Watkins describing himself as a “pro-choice Christian” during an event. Another foe, state Sen. Dennis Pyle, has a Facebook ad running the phrase in a loop.

Kansans for Life, the state’s influential abortion group, has jointly endorsed Fitzgerald, Pyle and Tyson, and Tyson has the National Right to Life Committee’s endorsement.

Watkins said he simply made a “verbal gaffe.” In a May interview with The Associated Press, he described himself as “unequivocally pro-life.”

He also said he never considered running as a Democrat. Watkins released statements from three longtime friends attesting that he held conservative views as far back as high school.

One, fellow veteran and Harvard classmate Dan Crenshaw , is the GOP nominee for a Texas congressional seat and shot a video with a portrait of President Ronald Reagan behind him.

“Steve is a staunch conservative Republican,” Crenshaw said, adding that it’s “laughable” for critics to label Watkins “soft on fundamental conservative values.”