GOP primary in 2nd Congressional District now in full swing, still with no clear front-runner
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TOPEKA — With a little more than nine weeks remaining before the Aug. 7 primary, Republican candidates in the 2nd Congressional District say they’ve been putting a lot of miles on their cars, traveling the length of the district, from the Nebraska border to the Oklahoma border.
Seven candidates are vying for the spot in hopes of succeeding retiring U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins. But at this point in the race, most of the candidates agree there is still no clear front-runner.
“Anyone who says they’re the front-runner is kidding themselves,” former Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays, of Topeka, said in an interview. “There is no front-runner right now.”
Whoever emerges from the primary will go on to face former Democratic state Rep. Paul Davis, of Lawrence, in the Nov. 6 general election.
Among the more recognizable names in the race, at least within political circles, are Mays; state Sens. Caryn Tyson, of Parker, who chairs the Senate tax committee; Steve Fitzgerald, of Leavenworth; and Dennis Pyle, of Hiawatha, who unsuccessfully challenged Jenkins for the nomination in 2010.
Also running are Rep. Kevin Jones, of Wellsville; U.S. Army veteran Steve Watkins, of Topeka; and Basehor City Councilman Vernon Fields.
Fields did not respond to a request for an interview. But the other six all said they have spent the last several weeks crisscrossing the district, attending candidate forums, appearing in town parades, and doing all of the things candidates do when campaigning for office.
On major issues, all of the candidates generally agree. All are strong supporters of gun rights. All support most of President Donald Trump’s policies, especially on taxes and deregulation.
But some have slightly different views on immigration, and some are more nervous than others about Trump’s trade policies and his recent decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
Fitzgerald is a retired Army colonel who now serves in the Kansas Senate. He was among the first to get into the race when he filed on July 13, 2017, vowing to be a loyal supporter of Trump’s agenda.
He said in an interview that on the campaign trail, he gets the sense that voters haven’t yet begun to focus on the race.
“Truth be told, it’s still too early. I think the front-runner right now is ‘none of the above,’ undecided,” he said. “I think it’s going to sort itself out here in the next few weeks and we’re going to begin to see who the front-runners really are.”
On the subject of immigration and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, Fitzgerald said he has struggled with the issue, but he has finally decided that he would be willing to consider granting a pathway to citizenship for at least some of the so-called “Dreamers.”
“I’ve got that much flexibility in me,” he said.
Jones is a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who left the military in 2010 and returned to his hometown of Wellsville. At the time he spoke with the Journal-World, he and his wife were preparing for the birth of their eighth child.
In the Legislature, Jones was an original co-sponsor of the controversial Adoption Protection Act
Jones said he is running on the theme of “faith, family and freedom,” and he said his primary goal, if elected, is to work on increasing wages in the 2nd District.
“That’s connected to everything, from the economy and taxes, and it also has to do with our current debt situation at the national level,” he said. “I talked to some folks up in Doniphan County dealing with wages, and that was the first thing that they brought up, was wages. It really is a loaded topic.”
Jones said that when he talks with voters, he doesn’t hear much concern about the recently imposed tariffs on foreign metals, or about fear of retaliatory tariffs being imposed on American agricultural exports.
“On the ground, what I’m hearing more is, people trust Trump’s negotiating ability, essentially, and they want what’s best, ultimately,” he said. “They don’t want to be taken advantage of, as America has (been) for so long.”
Mays served 14 years in the Kansas House, including his last two terms as speaker, from 2003 through 2006. That included the intense special session of 2005 when the Kansas Supreme Court had ordered in the Montoy v. Kansas school finance lawsuit that it would close public schools if lawmakers did not appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding.
Mays and other conservatives in the House argued the court had no authority to issue such an order. But he eventually relented and allowed a vote on a bill to comply with the order, even though he and other conservatives opposed it.
Mays said he got into the race mainly at the urging of other Republicans who worried that no one in the race at that time could compete against Paul Davis.
“In my mind, if I didn’t run and we lost the race, and Nancy Pelosi would become the speaker or someone else, all of the progress we’ve made on the economy, national defense and other things, deregulation, would stop, and we would then be in gridlock mode in D.C. for some time,” he said.
Mays said he agrees with Trump on most major issues, but he said he has serious concerns about the president’s trade policies and the imposition of new tariffs.
“I keep hoping that President Trump, as he has in the past, has an end game that won’t be harmful to our nation, and particularly the ag sector,” he said. “Right now I’m worried.”
Pyle is a state senator from Hiawatha and a farmer by profession. In the Legislature, he is known as a strident conservative who spoke out vocally and caustically against a 2017 tax bill that reversed course on the tax cuts that former Gov. Sam Brownback had championed five years earlier.
He was the last person to enter the race when he filed on May 23, a little more than a week before the June 1 deadline.
“I knew it was a crowded field and people were talking about the number of candidates, and I just felt that no matter how crowded it was, there was room for a genuine, proven conservative like me,” he said. “I represent rural Kansas values. My Senate district is very comparable to the congressional district.”
Pyle said he supports Trump’s policies, both on trade and immigration.
“I really do appreciate the president leading the way (on trade),” he said. “I think he’s kind of following Ronald Reagan’s lead. I think he believes like I do that we need peace through strength, and that by doing so we’re gaining the respect of other nations.”
Outside the Kansas Senate, Tyson works as a software engineer and lives on a farm near Parker, in Linn County, which was also Brownback’s hometown.
She is the only woman in the 2nd District race. But even in a year when a record number of women are running for Congress, she said she doesn’t feel that’s an issue in the race.
“I think we need people that are common sense, level-headed, and will work on solutions,” she said. “That’s who I am. I try to find solutions for problems, not just complain about them.”
On the subject of trade, Tyson said she worries about the possibility of retaliatory tariffs, but that she trusts Trump’s negotiating skills.
“This president has North and South Korea talking, and he’s got a summit with North Korea,” she said. “Who would have thought that would happen?”
She said she believes the U.S. immigration system is “broken,” and that she would like to see comprehensive reform, but that it has to be one that allows legal migrant farm workers to come into the country.
Watkins is the only candidate in the race with no prior political experience. And at age 41, he is also the youngest candidate.
A West Point graduate and former Army captain who served in special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, he now works for an engineering consulting firm that contracts with the military.
He was recently endorsed by the “With Honor” political action committee, a bipartisan organization seeking to elect more military veterans to Congress.
Watkins said he believes the fact that he is a political outsider will resonate with voters this year.
“Far and away, the issue that resonates most with them is the ‘drain the swamp’ message,” he said. “Many voters still believe in Donald Trump’s message of draining the swamp, and that logically is a nice segue to my candidacy.”
Watkins said he has been excited to see a large number of young voters, even high school students, getting politically involved this year. But despite the fact that many of them are doing so in response to recent mass shootings at public high schools, he remains a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights.