LAWRENCE, Kansas — The dynamics of U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins’ run for re-election continue to shift in the wake of felony charges filed last week after he listed a UPS storefront in Topeka as his address on a voter registration form.
High-profile endorsements quickly gravitated to his top challenger in the Republican primary, Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and Watkins’ defense team have swapped briefs in court — the congressman’s attorneys saying the charges come from a politically motivated Shawnee County district attorney, and the prosecutor’s office saying Watkins was slow to respond to investigators. Watkins wants District Attorney Michael Kagay disqualified from the case.
University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said with little polling, it’s hard to gauge the impact the charges have had on the race. He said the charges have heightened an already contentious fight, where Watkins is hammering LaTurner as a “swamp creature” advancing his political career and LaTurner is blasting Watkins over the registration investigation.
“We’re starting to see more of that,” Miller said, “that negativity.”
The third Republican in the race has largely stayed out of the fray. Dennis Taylor served as cabinet secretary overseeing social services, labor and government administration in the cabinets of former Kansas governors Mike Hayden and Sam Brownback. He’s continued to focus more on the need for a strong coronavirus response.
Watkins criticized the charges since the moment they were announced, less than an hour before a Republican debate last week.
“As soon as I realized that I had put my mailing address instead of my physical address, we fixed it,” Watkins said at the debate. “This (the timing of the charges) is very suspicious, seems highly political.”
Watkins’ attorneys moved to disqualify Kagay with allegations he used the same political consultant as LaTurner, The Singularis Group in Overland Park. They argue the owner of the company has criticized Watkins in the past.
Watkins campaign spokesperson Bryan Piligra said the timing of the charges before the debate, with no court appearances until well after the election, also raises concerns.
“All these coincidences lead to one inevitable conclusion: Jake LaTurner colluded with a corrupt prosecutor to file bogus charges,” Piligra said in a statement.
LaTurner’s campaign denies there’s any connection or collusion.
In a response filing, the prosecutor’s office said the timing was due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the pace of responses from Watkins’ office. It said charges were filed the same day a charging affidavit was received from law enforcement.
The filing alleges that Watkins told investigators one of his staffers filled out the voter registration form, but he didn’t know who.
That response also said many candidates have used Singularis for campaign material and that doesn’t create a connection between LaTurner and the district attorney.
“The fact that the defendant has political opponents who essentially shop at the same store as the district attorney does not impugn the district attorney’s motives or his fairness,” Deputy District Attorney Brett Watson wrote in the filing.
The filing also said Kagay and LaTurner had met once briefly in passing and had never discussed the investigation or political issues.
LaTurner’s campaign said Watkins was “throwing his own staff under the bus” and not owning up to the problem.
“If the facts are as Steve suggests them to be, he should have been able to clear this up in an afternoon,” LaTurner said in a statement.
Since the charges were announced, Watkins also stepped aside from his committee assignments, saying he wants to focus on the charges and let the committees focus on their work.
The last week has also been marked by LaTurner garnering some endorsements from well-known Republicans. Kansas 4th District U.S. Rep. Ron Estes endorsed LaTurner, citing the charges. And the political arm of the influential anti-abortion group Kansans for Life endorsed LaTurner in the race, after previously endorsing both LaTurner and Watkins.
“Pro-life voters in Northeast and Southeast Kansas can best stand up for the pre-born and their mothers by uniting behind Jake LaTurner this primary election,” KFL PAC’s Melissa Leach said in a statement.
KFL PAC said they believe LaTurner will have the best chance of beating the likely Democratic nominee, Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla. She’s in a primary race with James Windholz from Lawrence.
Endorsements generally have a limited effect, Miller said, but they can add up. And they’re a further indication that establishment Republican forces are backing LaTurner.
Since Watkins narrowly won his first election in 2018, and has faced questions about his background even before the voter registration investigation, Miller said it’s an appealing situation for anyone looking to challenge Watkins.
“The political players in the state probably smelled blood in the water here,” Miller said.
Still, Miller said criminal charges are not necessarily a political kiss of death. He points to former California congressman Duncan Hunter, who was reelected in 2018 despite charges of misusing campaign funds, although Hunter later resigned.
Watkins has given no indication that he wants to step aside, but at this point he couldn’t be removed from the ballot. Voting is already underway and a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office said no candidates could be removed from the ballot unless they met strict requirements in state law.
“By law, candidates cannot withdraw their candidacy after June 1 unless they pass away, move out of state or obtain medical certification they cannot serve,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Katie Koupal said in an email.
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Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
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