By Jim Ellis
July 16, 2020 — On Tuesday night, within an hour of him stepping onto a congressional debate stage in Kansas, freshman Rep. Steve Watkins (R-Topeka) was indicted in state court. He is charged with interference with law enforcement, providing false information, voting without being qualified, unlawful advance voting, and failing to notify the DMV of change of address according to the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office as reported in The Hill newspaper.Immediately Rep. Watkins claimed the timing of the indictments was politically motivated, though Republican District Attorney Mike Kagay naturally denied that was the case. Still, being charged three weeks before the primary election on what should be considered a minor activity that is treated as a felony, i.e., where a person declares his residence and whether he voted in a different city council district race that didn’t comply with his stated residence, arguably opens the DA’s actions to legitimate criticism.
The base controversy surrounds Watkins registering to vote at a UPS postal center in 2018. The congressman claims he made a mistake on the voter registration form by listing his mailing address rather than his street address. In a 2019 Topeka municipal election, Watkins apparently voted in the district race that housed the UPS store location he used as his mailing address, which is different from that of his stated residence; hence, the vote fraud charge.
Questions surrounding Watkins’ residence have been raised since he returned to Kansas to run for the open 2nd District seat. He re-located to Topeka after spending time in the military and living for most of the past few years in Alaska where he participates in the annual Iditarod races.
Attacking the residence issue, Rep. Watkins’ principal Republican primary opponent, Kansas state Treasurer Jake LaTurner, was already running an ad about the congressman registering to vote at the UPS store and owning two homes in Alaska “but none in Topeka” before the indictments came down, and now such residency issues will likely be at the forefront of the remaining three weeks in the primary cycle.
The Watkins controversy, however, does not end with the freshman congressman. His father, Dr. Steve Watkins Sr., a local Topeka physician, is reportedly under a Federal Election Commission investigation for allegedly making contributions in the name of another that combined exceeded his maximum individual limits. According to a Politico news story, Dr. Watkins confirms he is under investigation for giving money to his family members and associates in order for them to contribute to the congressional campaign. This is would be a serious charge that normally carries prison time. To date, no charges have been filed against Dr. Watkins.
Back in 2018, Steve Watkins, emphasizing his military service, was able to navigate through a crowded open race Republican primary comprised mostly of known elected officials. He campaigned as the outsider, and his father funded a major independent expenditure that helped his son score a 2,303 vote victory (26.5 percent) to win the primary over five opponents. Watkins then slipped past former state House Minority Leader and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis (D) in the general election by just one percentage point, 48-47 percent.
After being in the House for only about a year, rumors became rampant that Watkins was going to resign his seat because of a personal scandal that was about to become public. Nothing came of the rumors at the time, and the congressman continued to serve and filed for re-election.
Simultaneously, LaTurner, who was actually the first candidate in the open US Senate race after Sen. Pat Roberts (R) announced he would retire at the end of this term, was recruited instead to transfer into the House race and challenge Rep. Watkins for re-nomination. Former governor Jeff Colyer (R) is publicly referred to as the driving figure who convinced LaTurner to switch. Therefore, it is obvious that Rep. Watkins is no favorite of the local GOP establishment.
A third candidate is in the congressional primary race, former Kansas Labor Department Secretary Dennis Taylor. He attracted only $57,000 through his June 30 FEC disclosure report. This compares to Rep. Watkins’ $875,000 and LaTurner’s $685,000 raised through the end of March. Each will show considerably more when their latest disclosure reports are publicized.
No polling exists on the race, but it is likely that numbers will shift in light of the Watkins indictment and heavy media coverage. Today, it appears that LaTurner may have a strong chance of denying Watkins re-nomination, but the presence of Taylor could also allow the congressman to win with just a plurality as the anti-Watkins vote could split to a degree between the two challengers.
For the Democrats, Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla faces just one minor opponent in the Aug. 4 primary, but raised only $337,000 through March 31. It is a certainty that her candidacy will now rise on the Democratic national target list.
The 2nd District is comprised of 23 whole counties and parts of two others that stretch the length of the state in eastern Kansas, beginning at the Nebraska border on the north, then moving all the way to Oklahoma along the Missouri border while skirting around the Kansas City metro area. President Trump carried the seat, 56-37 percent in 2016, and Mitt Romney scored a similar 55-42 percent win here against President Obama four years earlier. Since the 1994 election, a Republican has represented the district for all but one term.