2020 Primary Voters Guide: Republican primary sets stage for potentially close Congressional race in 2nd District

photo by: AP File Photos

Rep. Steve Watkins, left, and Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner, right, will face off for Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District seat in the Aug. 4, 2020, primary.

For the second election cycle in a row, Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District has caught the attention of national political analysts, who say the GOP primary matchup between frontrunners Steve Watkins and Jake LaTurner could play a big role in whether the seat stays in Republican hands.

The 2nd district, on its face, is a mixed bag. It contains Lawrence, traditionally a liberal stronghold, but at the same time has elected a Republican to the House of Representatives in every election since Democrat Nancy Boyda was defeated in 2006.

However, that doesn’t mean the 25-county district isn’t flippable for Democrats. President Donald Trump won the 2nd District by 18 percentage points in 2016, but a short two years later, Watkins won the district by only 2,239 votes — a mere 0.8% — over Lawrence Democrat Paul Davis after emerging from a crowded primary field.

Watkins faces a less-crowded primary in 2020, only challenged this time by LaTurner, a Topeka Republican who currently serves as Kansas’ treasurer, and Dennis Taylor, a Republican who ran for Kansas secretary of state in 2018 but lost in the primary.

LaTurner, at 32, is the youngest statewide elected official in the United States. He served in the Kansas Senate for several years before his election as state treasurer, in which he handily defeated Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence.

Watkins was a political unknown before the 2018 election. He served a decade in the military and then worked as an independent military contractor, and he had never held elected office.

In 2018, Watkins won the Republican primary with only 26.5% of the vote. He’s also faced controversies over his residency, both in the 2018 campaign and since taking office. Days before the 2018 primary, an open letter signed by local Republican leaders expressed concern about Watkins’ absence from his district, and more recently he was found to have listed a UPS Inc. postal box as his residence on a state voter registration form. Last week, Watkins was charged with voter fraud and other crimes in relation to that incident, and on Friday he was forced to temporarily give up his House committee assignments.

Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said that for as much as he has monitored Kansas’ coming congressional elections, he has been unable to find an area of policy where Watkins and LaTurner differ.

“I think in the House it’s more about style. It’s more about personality,” Miller said. “I think Steve Watkins has spent the last two years, and even in the 2018 campaign, talking more about Trump than he talks about himself.”

LaTurner, Miller said, hasn’t publicly supported the president quite as ardently as Watkins.

“He’s trying to keep talking more about himself and brandishing his conservative credentials,” he said. “So I think it’s just the degree to how much they emphasize Trump (that’s a policy difference).”

Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, also said there are few, if any, differences between Watkins and LaTurner — considered the two frontrunners — with regards to policy.

“As far as policy differences, Watkins and LaTurner don’t have many and are running more on other arguments, as both are running as strong conservatives and Trump allies,” Beatty said. “Watkins is arguing that LaTurner is an opportunist because he was going to run for the Senate but switched to Congress, and LaTurner is arguing that Watkins is more vulnerable to losing in the fall to (Democrat Michelle) De La Isla because of Watkins’ past controversies.”

Taylor, Beatty said, is running on a more novel platform: He’s focusing on a national response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watkins and LaTurner are both vocal abortion foes and gun rights supporters, and both have language on their campaign websites about protecting the border, defending constitutional rights and reducing the federal deficit.

Whoever wins the Aug. 4 primary will face De La Isla, an already well-funded Democrat who currently serves as Topeka’s mayor, in the Nov. 3 general election.

How viable De La Isla is in a general election, though, may depend on the outcome of the Republican primary, Miller said. Generally, the 2nd District votes Republican by 60%-40% in statewide and national elections; Watkins got 47.6% of the vote in 2018.

“If Paul Davis had flipped that district, it would have been by just about any measure the most Republican district in the country that would have flipped in 2018,” Miller said. “So I would say it’s not the kind of district that Democrats are typically targeting this year.”

Miller, though, speculated that Democrats might target the seat more if Watkins wins the primary because of the controversy that has surrounded his campaign.


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