Newcomer Watkins wins House seat in eastern Kansas

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans held onto an eastern Kansas congressional seat Tuesday they had been in danger of losing because of questions about their novice candidate’s public statements.

Steve Watkins defeated Democrat Paul Davis in the 2nd District and will replace retiring five-term GOP Rep. Lynn Jenkins.

Davis was better known as a former Kansas House minority leader and he had carried the district in an unsuccessful run for governor in 2014.

But the district leans Republican: Trump carried it by nearly 17 percentage points in 2016, and Watkins had the president’s endorsement.

Watkins, a former Army officer and government contractor, emerged from a bruising seven-person primary that saw one opponent label him a “fraud” and some local leaders question his commitment to the Republican Party.

Watkins told his supporters that he would work to bring conservative values and military leadership to Congress.

“You took a leap of faith in me,” he said. “I won’t let you down.”

He told WIBW-TV in a short interview that he will focus on immigration and economic issues.

Topeka voter Tuffy Radford, a 37-year-old Republican, said he voted for Watkins because was confident enough about the economy earlier this year to start his own tile-setting business after struggling to find work a few years ago.

“I need to keep the economy going in my direction,” he said. “The economy’s booming.”

Watkins himself emerged as an issue despite his attractive profile as a political outsider and a West Point graduate who served in Afghanistan and then worked there, in Iraq and in Central Asia as a government contractor. He’s run the famed Iditarod dog sled race twice in Alaska and attempted to scale Mount Everest in 2015.

But he was caught exaggerating his role in a small business in the Middle East and removed a quote about his “heroic leadership” during the Mount Everest expedition attributed to his guide, after the guide told The Associated Press that he’d never said it.

Even before, Republican critics noted that the Topeka native had spent most of his adult life living outside Kansas and had not voted in the state until a municipal election in November 2017, after he’d decided to run for Congress.

Also, Watkins’ father, a Topeka physician, was heavily involved in the race as the almost-exclusive source of funding for a political action committee, Kansans Can Do Anything, boosting his son’s candidacy. The elder Watkins contributed more than $765,000 to the PAC.

One former GOP foe, ex-state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, called him “a charlatan, a fraud and an opportunist,” days before the August primary, though he later wouldn’t criticize Watkins. Some GOP leaders also were wary of him after three Democrats said publicly that he met with them last year about running as a Democrat — something he strongly disputed.