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Seven Kansas Republicans Work to Stand Out in Crowded 2nd Congressional District

Crysta Henthorne

Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins’ decision not to seek re-election drew seven fellow Republicans eager to take over her seat in the 2nd Congressional District. As Stephen Koranda reports, they're trying to distinguish themselves and carve out a piece of the GOP vote.

They're elbowing for ways to stand out in the crowded field -- and face a politically formidable Democrat in one of the few dozen districts across the country where oddsmakers see at least a plausible chance of a seat flipping from red to blue in the mid-term election.

Whoever wins the August primary will take on Paul Davis, a well-funded Democrat who lost the 2014 general election race for governor to Sam Brownback. In that race, he beat the Republican in the 2nd Congressional District.

Six of the seven Republican congressional candidates gathered recently for a forum in a church basement in Eudora. The organizers had set up a folding table, but there were so many candidates that they couldn’t fit behind it. Two sat off to the side.

Despite the number of candidates, the GOP hopefuls vary little on the major issues. Instead, there’s a lot of agreement.

Take, for instance, immigration – and whether the United States should build a massive wall on the southern border like President Donald Trump wants.

“Do I support the wall? The answer is yes,” said Basehor City Council member Vernon Fields. “More than that, the wall needs to be backed by a significant policy of resources.”

“The wall will not fix our security entirely,” state Rep. Kevin Jones said, “but it without a doubt is a deterrent, and that’s what we can do.”

“Yes, we need to build a wall,” state Sen. Caryn Tyson, of Parker, told the crowd. “And yes, we need to fund it.”

There’s similar agreement among the candidates on other big issues, including abortion and taxes.

That sameness makes picking a candidate a little more difficult for voters such as Edmond Rea. He came to the Eudora forum because he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and he wanted to see the candidates face-to-face.

“I like them all, and I wish we could put them all on the federal level,” he said after the forum. “Knowing that’s not possible, I’m going to have to choose.”

Rea said the economy, immigration and border security are important to him, and he wants someone who will support the president and his agenda.

“President Trump is just taking it from all sides right now, and he needs more supporters,” Rea said.

The candidates in this race are in step with the president. They’re trying to differentiate themselves while at the same time appealing to the conservative voters who helped put Trump in office.  

Republican state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, of Leavenworth, touts his conservative credentials and his outspoken, strict stance against abortion. He said he’s ready to serve in Congress based on his military, business and elected experience.

“Just being a conservative is not enough. I think you have to be common sense, you have to be willing to work with others,” he said. “You have to be able to get together and pull the wagon so that we’re going in the right direction.”

Another state lawmaker in the race, Sen. Dennis Pyle of Hiawatha, said he’ll work with others to get things done, but he’s also prepared to clash with party leadership when necessary. He points out that he challenged Jenkins for her seat several years ago when he thought she wasn’t voting the right way.

“I’m willing to work with leadership. I will not work for them,” Pyle said. “I will work for the people in my district. I’ve told them where I stand on issues. The voters make their decision.”

Tyson, who owns a ranch in Linn County, is touting her endorsement by the Kansas Farm Bureau and her background in technology. She said she’s worked on tough budget and tax issues while in the Legislature and can take that experience to Washington.

“Part of our theme is stop stalling, start debating and get it done, and that’s what we need to do,” Tyson said. “People are tired of just pointing fingers and not getting action. I want to be somebody that works on solutions.”

The race isn’t just playing out on debate stages like the one in Eudora, it’s also hitting the airwaves. And one candidate will likely be mentioned on TV more than any other.

Steve Watkins, a political outsider and veteran, will have a blitz of TV ads paid for by a super PAC funded by his father, a Topeka physician. The elder Watkins has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the super PAC.

Fitzgerald has been targeting Watkins over the funding and what he believes is an insincere Republican pedigree.

“He’s buying the race,” Fitzgerald said. “I think his core values are whatever you want them to be.”

Watkins, from Topeka, said there’s a simple explanation why he’s a target for Fitzgerald.

“Because we’re doing great in the polls,” Watkins said. “There’s a reason why we’re getting hit with all this fake news. Don’t believe it.”

In the race, Watkins is tying himself to another person who ran as a political novice, Donald Trump. He calls the other candidates career politicians.

“If we want an outsider, and if we want somebody to help Donald Trump drain the swamp, there’s one candidate. That’s Steve Watkins. I’m proud of that,” he said.

Former Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays of Topeka joined the race saying he could keep it in Republican hands. He said at a forum last month in Leavenworth that there’s a lot of pressure in Congress to vote with leadership. He said he proved during his time in the Legislature that he’ll stick to his guns.

“It helps that I’ve been through the wringer a few times,” Mays said. “I have stood up to some very important people, not the least of which were a couple governors, and done what I thought was right.”

Jones is another candidate touting military experience. He lays out his priorities as fiscal reform, national security and fighting the opioid epidemic. He said he joined the race because too many politicians are focused on their own interests.

“I see a lack of true servant leaders in D.C.,” he said at the Eudora candidate forum. “There’s just a lot of folks in positions of authority doing it for themselves.”

Fields is a retired federal law enforcement officer and he’s selling himself on core conservative values, including limited government, personal responsibility and constitutional rights.

“It is my firm belief that the 2nd Congressional District of Kansas deserves a representative who will be held personally responsible for limiting the impact of government,” reads one of his campaign cards.

With the candidates agreeing on so many issues, it makes sense that they’re trying to differentiate themselves in other ways, according to University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller.

“These candidates are not particularly well known,” he said. “They have the job of introducing themselves to voters. Part of that is having the best story, the best narrative, the best biography.”

Stephen Koranda is KPR's Statehouse reporter.