Surrounded by family, Jake LaTurner talks to reporters after winning the Republican primary for Kansas' 2nd Congressional District, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Topeka, Kan. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

Kansas Rep. Watkins unseated after facing criminal charges

August 04, 2020 - 11:51 pm

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Freshman Kansas Rep. Steve Watkins lost his Republican primary Tuesday after being charged with felony election fraud and other crimes.

State Treasurer Jake LaTurner unseated Watkins after arguing that the criminal charges against Watkins made an already vulnerable incumbent an even worse bet with Democrats sensing an opportunity to pick up the 2nd District seat in eastern Kansas despite its Republican leanings. Watkins had largely toed the conservative line and vocally supported President Donald Trump in Congress.

“It’s time to look to the future,” LaTurner told his supporters at a Topeka hotel. “It’s time to unite this party.”

Watkins told reporters he called LaTurner to congratulate him and to wish him well in November, adding he personally would like to be part of Republican unity this November.

“I will continue to work to the best of my ability 'til the very last day that I serve,” Watkins said.

The charges against Watkins were filed in state district court his home of Shawnee County just three weeks before the election and arose from his listing a postal box at a UPS Inc. store as his residence on a state voter registration form.

Watkins and LaTurner battled for the GOP nomination with Dennis Taylor, a Topeka lawyer and businessman with a long career in state and local government that has included heading several state agencies. Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla won the Democratic nomination easily over James Windholz, a University of Kansas graduate student and instructor.

Jeanie Schuler, a 65-year-old retired health insurance director from Topeka, voted for LaTurner, saying that he’s “more trustworthy” than Watkins. The felony charges against Watkins influenced her vote, she said.

“It doesn’t take a lot of brains to actually use your real address,” she said after voting at a church. “So there had to have been something intentional occur.”

Watkins is accused of voting illegally in a Topeka City Council race in November 2019 and of trying to mislead a sheriff’s detective who was investigating whether he broke state election laws by listing the UPS postal box as his residence last yerar for voter registration purposes. Watkins later corrected his residential address — twice — so that it’s now an apartment that lies outside the City Council district that includes the UPS store.

Watkins has said he made a mistake and corrected it. He’s called the criminal charges “bogus” and has accused the local district attorney, Mike Kagay, of colluding with LaTurner because both share a direct mail services firm. He acknowledged during a Kansas City Star interview last week that he voted in the wrong City Council district but said he did not intend to break the law. He suggested the voter registration resulted from “collegial” work with his staff but denied an allegation that he tried to mislead the detective by blaming the voter registration problem on his staff.

LaTurner told reporters voters want somebody who is consistent representing them.

“They want to keep this seat in Republican hands and I think they spoke with a loud voice saying that tonight,” LaTurner said. “We are very pleased with the results and look forward to uniting the party.”

Democrats and some Republicans already saw Watkins as vulnerable this year because he won the November 2018 election by less than a percentage point after emerging from a crowded GOP primary with less than 27% of the vote. He is a former Army officer and military contractor.

Tom Smith, a 58-year-old retired business owner who voted in Topeka, declined to say whom he voted for but said he had concerns about Watkins and LaTurner. He said he found the charges against Watkins to be “really disturbing” and that he fears that if Watkins is elected but gets convicted of something, he would be forced to leave Congress. But he said he’s not excited about LaTurner either because he thinks LaTurner has used his office to “do a lot of advertising for himself.”

Kris Miller, a 47-year-old financial planner based in Topeka, said he voted for Watkins because he liked how the congressman’s voting record matched Trump’s policies. He said he didn’t think the “intent was there” when Watkins listed the postal box as his address.

“As a business person, I know that stuff can get confusing,” Miller said.

LaTurner is a former state senator who has served as state treasurer since 2017. De La Isla is the first Latina and single mother to serve as Topeka mayor, winning the office in 2017 after serving on the City Council.

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