Aug 04, 2020 6:00 AM

Kansas Rep. Watkins battles for seat while facing charges

Posted Aug 04, 2020 6:00 AM
Photo courtesy Rep. Steve Watkins
Photo courtesy Rep. Steve Watkins

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Freshman Rep. Steve Watkins, who is facing felony illegal voting charges, fought Tuesday to fend off a challenge in Kansas’ Republican primary.

Watkins was trying to survive the challenge from State Treasurer Jake LaTurner after having largely toed the conservative line and vocally supporting President Donald Trump while representing the 2nd District in eastern Kansas. LaTurner argued that the criminal charges against Watkins made an already vulnerable incumbent an even worse bet with Democrats sensing an opportunity to pick up the seat despite the district’s Republican leanings.

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

Watkins and LaTurner were vying 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 was favored to win the Democratic nomination against James Windholz, a University of Kansas graduate student and instructor.

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 for voter registration purposes last year. 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.

The congressman has said he made a mistake and corrected it. He has 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.

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.

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.