In a tight race that tested the highs and lows of supporters emotions, Steve Watkins, a political newcomer, bucked the polls and a challenge from veteran Democrat Paul Davis Tuesday to keep Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District under Republican control for another two years.
As early results came in, Democrats thought that Davis was on the way to a win. But Watkins’s eventual victory, by a slim 2 percentage points (48 to 46) took some of the edge off of a difficult night nationally for House Republicans, who lost control of the chamber to the Democrats.
Watkins keeps the seat in the Republican column, where it has been since Lynn Jenkins defeated Democrat Nancy Boyda in 2008. Polling had suggested that Davis was pulling away from Watkins as Tuesday approached. But Republicans turned out for Watkins in a district that’s largely rural and conservative, stretching across 25 eastern Kansas counties from the Nebraska to the Oklahoma border.
Tuesday’s win caps a surprising ascendancy for Watkins, 42, a political novice who emerged from a crowded Republican primary on the strength of a campaign funded in large part by himself and his family.
The West Point graduate and Army captain ran on a deeply conservative platform of deregulation, gun rights and limited immigration, among other planks.
Watkins fought not only Davis but many within his own party who questioned his conservative bona fides. His campaign was also dogged by revelations that he exaggerated his role with a security contractor, first brought to light in an investigation by The Star and McClatchy D.C., as well as a report that contained allegations of sexual misconduct.
But Watkins persevered, and told reporters in his victory speech that his outsider status helped him win.
”Tens of thousands of Kansans have rallied behind my campaign to usher in a new era of political leadership — tonight, their voices were heard,” Watkins said, flanked by his family. “This victory is not mine, the seat is not mine. It belongs to the people of eastern Kansas.”
For Davis, 46, once a Democratic mainstay in the Kansas Legislature, it was a second high-profile defeat since losing to Sam Brownback in his bid for Kansas Governor in 2014.
“Unfortunately we lost a very close race here,” Davis said in conceding shortly after 11 p.m.. He offered his sincere congratulations to Watkins.
“Steve has served his country and I wish him the very best in the days ahead,” Davis said. But then he inspired the crowd.
“I also want to thank our new governor,” Davis said, referring to the win by Democrat Laura Kelly, who defeated Kansas Sec. of State Kris Kobach to win the Kansas governorship. “We have something to celebrate tonight.”
Davis also said his defeat would mark the end of his political career.
“It is time for me to turn a page in the next chapter of my life,” he said.
Through most of the night, more than 300 Democratic supporters in Lawrence had been all but giddy as news rolled in that the party had made gains in Kansas and nationwide. The crowd, packed into Maceli’s Banquet Hall & Catering, erupted at the news that Kelly had defeated Kobach.
Cheers were even louder when television news reported Davis leading Watkins 50.9 percent to 43.9 percent with 32 percent of votes counted.
Davis, typecast as a “liberal lawyer from Lawrence” in his 2014 bid for governor, staked out moderate positions this year, saying he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker if Democrats took control of the House.
But it wasn’t enough. By 10 p.m., the Kansas Secretary of State’s office showed Watkins and Davis in a dead heat at 47 percent each.
Meantime, it was an odd scene in Topeka at the Capitol Plaza Hotel where a Republican crowd had anticipated a victory for Kobach over Kelly.
As it became apparent that Kobach would lose, the crowd dissipated, and a smattering of Watkins supporters hung around. Watkins himself was at his home in Topeka, watching with his family and supporters. When the numbers improved, he headed for the hotel.
Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas GOP Party, said Watkins’ race was one of the high profile Kansas races for Republicans that he felt good about ahead of Election Day.
”This one I had high hopes of winning,” Arnold said, noting that Trump had won the District easily in 2016. “He is somebody who is going to have a new perspective on Washington D.C.