GOP candidates, establishment lining up against 2nd District candidate Steve Watkins
photo by: Contributed photo
TOPEKA – For a time, Steve Watkins appeared to be a rising star in Kansas Republican politics. A decorated military veteran and extreme sports enthusiast, he appeared to have all the credentials of a modern Republican candidate when he filed to run in the 2nd District congressional race.
Watkins, 41, of Topeka, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was an adventurer who had competed in the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska and had even attempted to climb Mount Everest.
He announced his candidacy in early November, carrying the endorsement of a new political action committee focused on veterans called “With Honor.” And he described himself as a solid Republican conservative.
On his campaign website, Watkins describes himself as someone who stands up for “conservative family values.” He opposes abortion rights and supports tough immigration policies and border security. He is also described as a strong supporter of Second Amendment gun rights, and he recently criticized the University of Kansas for displaying a piece of art that he denounced as a desecrated American flag.
But questions are now swirling in GOP circles about whether Watkins’ image was just manufactured for the campaign.
His statements, or misstatements, about his position on abortion, his lack of any record of voting in previous partisan elections, reports that he had previously courted Democrats before filing to run as a Republican, and the support he is now getting from outside political action committees tied to moderate Republicans are all being used as ammunition to question his conservative credentials.
“Watkins is the Washington, D.C., swamp’s choice to replace Lynn Jenkins,” Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, one of the other candidates in the GOP primary, said in a statement Tuesday. “The swamp is using their dark money to stack the deck for the establishment candidate Watkins.”
The Watkins campaign did not grant a request to interview him about the criticisms, but his campaign spokeswoman, Victoria Snitsar, issued an email statement:
“The desperate swamp politicians of the Second District are coming out against Steve Watkins in droves because he is a true conservative outsider, and the only one who can beat Paul Davis and stop Nancy Pelosi,” the statement read. “No one else stands a chance of winning in November. He is running to stand with President Trump, bring military leadership to Congress, and protect the unborn.”
Two of his rivals for the GOP nomination, state Sens. Caryn Tyson, of Parker, and Dennis Pyle, of Hiawatha, recently posted audio and video recordings of Watkins speaking at a recent candidate forum in Burlington where he described himself as a “pro-choice Christian,” calling into question his stance on abortion.
Pyle turned a short video clip of that statement into a Facebook ad he is distributing, while Tyson has set up a separate website, therealstevewatkins.com, which features a longer version of the audio.
The statement, according to Tyson, came during a recent Republican candidate forum in Burlington. And while that may have just been a slip of the tongue by a first-time candidate getting his terminology mixed up, Tyson said he has repeated that statement, including on a questionnaire from the National Right to Life Committee.
“He confirmed it with two statements,” Tyson said in an interview Wednesday.
Also this week, a group of about 40 GOP officials in the 2nd District, including several county chairs, led by 2nd District Chairwoman Cheryl Reynolds, of Topeka, issued a statement raising issue with the fact that Watkins only registered to vote shortly before he filed for office Nov. 27, and that as an adult he had never voted in any election until last year’s nonpartisan municipal races.
“The position of the grassroots leaders is that Kansas congressional candidates should have a voting history in Kansas — and a voting history as a Republican — before receiving widespread support from Kansas Republicans,” the statement said.
According to the Shawnee County Election Office, Watkins first registered to vote on Sept. 14, 2017. His only record of voting in Shawnee County was in the November 2017 municipal election in Topeka.
During the first few months of 2018, Watkins appeared to many as just one of several candidates in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Jenkins, one whom voters in the 2nd District had never heard of before.
That changed in the spring, however, when Watkins’ father, Steven Watkins Sr., a Topeka physician, set up a political action committee, the Kansans Can Do Anything PAC, and began pouring money into it. During the months of June and July, according to Federal Election Commission records, the PAC spent nearly $472,000 running ads in support of candidate Watkins.
Watkins has also gotten support from another PAC, the Patriotic Americans PAC, which on July 27 reported spending $22,222 on a direct mail campaign in support of Watkins.
But Watkins has also drawn opposition from at least one national PAC, Our American Century, which reported spending $23,000 on Tuesday to produce and place digital and TV ads opposing Watkins.
All that might seem like a lot of effort being spent on a little-known candidate making his first run for public office in a crowded Republican primary field. But Tyson said she is not surprised.
“We were told from the beginning that he would be our main competitor,” she said.
The GOP primary will be decided on Tuesday. Whoever emerges will face Democrat Paul Davis, of Lawrence, and Libertarian candidate Kelly Standley, of St. Paul, in the Nov. 6 general election.