Political novice Steve Watkins wins 2nd District race over Paul Davis
photo by: Mike Yoder
TOPEKA – Republican political newcomer Steve Watkins declared victory in the 2nd District congressional race Tuesday night, preventing what was otherwise considered a “blue wave” in U.S. House races from reaching fully into eastern Kansas.
With all but four precincts reporting in the district, unofficial results Tuesday night showed Watkins, an Army veteran and engineer, edging out former Democratic state lawmaker Paul Davis, of Lawrence, 48-46 percent, with Libertarian candidate Kelly Standley pulling in 6 percent.
Watkins told his supporters that he would work to bring conservative values and military leadership to Congress.
“You took a leap of faith in me,” he said. “I won’t let you down.”
He told WIBW-TV in a short interview that he will focus on immigration and economic issues.
Davis, who also narrowly lost the 2014 race for governor, had served five terms in the House, including two as minority leader, but he had never defeated a Republican in a general election.
He ran unopposed in four of his five House races. The only time he did face an opponent was in 2006 when he ran against Libertarian candidate Marcus Kirby.
Davis had led as early returns came in Tuesday night. In the end, though, he carried only his home base of Douglas County and neighboring Shawnee County, while the more rural counties in the district all went for Watkins.
Although Davis raised and spent far more than Watkins in the race, Watkins had the benefit of more than $3 million in independent spending from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.
He also had the endorsement of President Donald Trump who, along with Vice President Mike Pence, held a campaign rally for him in October in Topeka.
Watkins’ campaign focused on issues that are largely in line with Trump’s philosophy, such as cutting taxes and cracking down on illegal immigration, while Davis focused his campaign on the need for bipartisanship in Washington to address issues such as health care, Social Security and Medicare.
Watkins is a former Army officer and government contractor. He overcame questions about living outside Kansas most of his adult life and being caught embellishing his accomplishments. Watkins will replace retiring five-term GOP Rep. Lynn Jenkins.
Davis conceded defeat in the race and told a Lawrence crowd that he is done seeking public office.
Davis said he called Watkins and congratulated him on his victory.
“He has served our country and I wish him well,” Davis said in remarks at the Douglas County watch party for the Democratic Party in downtown Lawrence.
Davis held an early lead in the race as he won both Douglas and Shawnee counties, but lost in the many rural counties that make up the sprawling 2nd District.
Davis also ran unsuccessfully to unseat Gov. Sam Brownback four years ago. Davis told the Lawrence crowd that he would not seek office again.
“Tonight marks the conclusion of my last run for public office,” Davis said. He said he sought to start a new chapter but would continue to look for ways to build on his belief that “government can and should make people’s lives better.”
Davis didn’t comment on what he thought turned the race in Watkins’ favor, and left the watch party shortly after making his remarks.
After Davis’ concession speech about 11 p.m., several of his supporters were still trying to comprehend how Democrat Laura Kelly won the governor’s race but Davis lost the 2nd District race.
“It is a mystery,” Jill Allen, of Lawrence, said.
The state as a whole is generally more conservative than the 2nd District, yet the 2nd District is where conservatives scored their biggest win of the night.
Margaret Kramar, of rural Douglas County, theorized that unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach had even higher negative ratings with female voters than once believed.
“He may have turned women voters off more than we even knew,” Kramar said.
In that regard, Watkins may have benefited from being much less known than Kobach.
“He definitely had his negatives, but he stayed really quiet,” Allen said.
Kelly also had one thing going for her that Davis could not benefit from, Tad Kramar said. Kelly benefited from the voter turnout generated by rising Democratic star Sharice Davids in the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas City. Since Kansas City area voters couldn’t vote in the 2nd District race, Davis didn’t benefit from that groundswell.
“I think Johnson County helped Kelly a lot,” Kramar said.
Unofficial results show that Kelly won Johnson County 55 percent to 38 percent.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.