Government & Politics

Kansas GOP grapples with whispers about freshman congressman being pressured to resign

Rep. Steve Watkins pushed back Friday against speculation he would resign following what his chief of staff called a whisper campaign by political operatives. Read the latest.

Rep. Steve Watkins’ chief of staff hit back Friday against what he says is a whisper campaign by political operatives intended to damage the freshman congressman with rumors about his personal life.

“These rumors are absurd,” said Jim Joice, Watkins’ chief of staff, in a statement. “The whisper campaign coming from political operatives in Kansas is exactly what is wrong with politics. This will be the last time I am commenting on unfounded rumors.”

Joice’s statement comes after more than a week of pervasive rumors in Washington and Kansas political circles about the prospect of a damaging disclosure about the Republican freshman.

So far, the speculation has been unsubstantiated and no evidence has emerged to support the innuendo.

Joice didn’t specify which party or operatives he believed were responsible for the whisper campaign.

But Chris Reeves, the Kansas Democratic National Committeeman, said the rumors about Watkins are being pushed by Republican operatives in the state.

“This is a bizarre whisper campaign by Republicans against one of their own electeds and time has come for them to either produce the goods or let it go and just primary the guy,” Reeves said.

Kansas Republican Party leaders grew concerned enough that they held a conference call Tuesday night to discuss how to deal with the potential fallout, confirmed Shannon Golden, the state party’s executive director.

Golden said the party has reached out to Watkins’ office in response to the rumors, but emphasized that no one from the state party has pressured Watkins’ to resign, despite media reports.

“No one at the Kansas GOP has had a conversation with Watkins’ people about a resignation. That didn’t happen,” Golden said. “We did talk just to get everybody up to speed.”

Several sources familiar with the conference call said the discussion even addressed the prospect of a special election if Watkins stepped down.

Golden said the state party is not lining up potential replacements.

“That wouldn’t even be the first 10 steps of handling the situation,” she said.

Golden’s comments come a day after Watkins abruptly left a meet-and-greet event with constituents at a Fort Scott brewery without taking questions from waiting reporters.

Watkins put his phone to his ear and walked directly to a side door. Outside, he got into the front passenger door of an SUV parked a few feet away. He closed the door, ignoring shouted questions.

The vehicle drove off as Watkins continued to hold the phone to his ear.

The unusual scene came a few minutes after Watkins assured reporters that he would take questions at the end of the event.

“Media, I’m sure you have questions. We’ll do an interview,” Watkins said earlier in the event.

The speculation about Watkins’ future comes after a string of departures of senior staff in recent months.

Colin Brainard, a longtime congressional staffer who worked for Watkins’ predecessor, former GOP Rep. Lynn Jenkins, stepped down as chief of staff this month. His departure followed the resignations of Watkins’ legislative director in May and his executive assistant in July.

Adam York, the former legislative director, said he left the office on amicable terms in anticipation of his daughter’s June birth. He wanted to return to Kansas to raise his family and accepted a position as director of programs for the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission.

His departure was unrelated to any issues with the representative, York said.

Watkins’ won a seven-way primary against more established candidates with a plurality of 26 percent despite widespread criticism from county party chairs throughout the district.

He went onto win the seat by 2 percentage points against Democrat Paul Davis despite a series of damaging stories about an inflated business resume, his spotty voting record and reported allegations of sexual misconduct in Alaska.

Watkins has tried to remove references to some of these stories from his Wikipedia page, according to the page’s edit history.

A history of changes to the page show the congressman made at least half a dozen edits in November 2018. His now-chief of staff, Joice, appears to have also made changes.

“I am Steve Watkins. My lawyers and I edited this page because it was heavily biased,” a comment next to one edit says.

Watkins changed a reference to an allegation of sexual assault against him to sexual advance. His Wikipedia page cites a Topeka Capital-Journal story from October 2018 where Alaska resident Chelsea Scarlett said Watkins once made unwanted sexual advances against her.

Scarlett told the newspaper that she didn’t file a complaint because she feared getting fired from her job working as a contractor at Fort Richardson in Alaska.

Watkins inserted language into his Wikipedia page pushing back on Scarlett and noted that “two of the newspapers who carried the story endorsed Watkins’ opponent and routinely endorse democrat candidates.”

In December, the user “Jjoice” – apparently Joice – removed the section on the allegations altogether.

“These types of nasty political tactics are what stop good men and women from running for public office,” Jjoice commented next to the change.

Other Wikipedia editors fought back against the change and Watkins’ page now includes a disclaimer that says a major contributor to the article appears to have a close connection to the subject. On a discussion page, Watkins was warned that he could be blocked the next time he violates Wikipedia policy.

Elise Flick, a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that supports Wikipedia, said the use of a neutral point of view in articles is one of Wikipedia’s fundamental policies. Individuals with a conflict of interest are encouraged to make suggestions for changes, rather than make changes themselves.

“This guideline is meant to ensure that Wikipedia remains a neutral, reliable, and accurate free knowledge resource,” Flick wrote in an email.

Watkins, a first time candidate and Army veteran, sank more than $475,000 of his own money into his campaign in 2018. His father, a Topeka physician, steered $765,000 in a super PAC to support his son’s bid.

Despite President Donald Trump winning his district by double digits in 2016, Watkins could face a difficult path to re-election if he faces a primary challenge or a well-funded Democratic opponent in 2020.

He’s enrolled in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Patriots Program, which is designed to protect vulnerable incumbents.

A Washington-based Republican source said that the NRCC would not be involved in any reported effort to push Watkins to step down ahead of 2020. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office did not immediately comment on the speculation about Watkins’ future or whether the California Republican has spoken this week with the Kansas freshman.

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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.