U.S. House, 2nd District: LaTurner crushes U.S. Rep. Watkins in GOP primary

Topeka Mayor De La Isla earns Democratic nomination for Congress

By: - August 4, 2020 10:30 pm

U.S. Jake LaTurner tested positive for COVID-19 late Wednesday, his office announced on Twitter. (Aug. 4, 2020, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas state Treasurer Jake LaTurner crushed incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins in a three-candidate Republican primary election Tuesday as the congressman failed to stay afloat under the weight of three felony voting fraud charges filed against him late in the race.

LaTurner, who toiled as a U.S. Senate candidate before convinced to jump into the 2nd District contest, will be competing against Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, who easily prevailed in the Democratic Party’s primary. It’s a House seat that Republicans would be loathe to lose, and has been viewed by Democrats as a possible pick-up after Gov. Laura Kelly carried the district by 9 points in 2018.

“God bless you. This is a great night,” LaTurner told supporters. “I just feel really blessed right now and humbled.”

LaTurner, who is from southeast Kansas, said Republicans in the 2nd District were ready for a nominee capable of winning in the fall election. The desire to keep it red, but out of Watkins’ hands, led to endorsements from former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, Congressman Ron Estes, the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansans for Life PAC.

Unofficial returns in the 25-county district had LaTurner with 49% of the vote, to Watkins’ 34% and Dennis Taylor’s 17%. Watkins was viewed as vulnerable after prevailing in the 2018 general election in the GOP-leaning district by less than 1 percentage point.

On the Democrat’s ballot, De La Isla had support from 75% of voters against opponent James Windholz, of Lawrence.

“I want to thank Mr. Windholz for running, and I look forward to working with him to make our community stronger,” she said. “Over the next three months, I plan on listening to Kansans and talking about the issues that matter to them, like lowering the cost of health care and investing in infrastructure and education.”

De La Isla said “Washington was broken” and lawmakers need to work across party lines to start getting real results.

Watkins, LaTurner and “independent” alternate candidate Taylor, all of Topeka, took divergent paths during the campaign. Watkins sought to connect himself to President Donald Trump and denounce LaTurner as a “fake Republican” who voted for a massive state tax increase. LaTurner gained traction by accusing Watkins of lying to police about his bogus address on voter registration and advance ballot documents and for being unelectable in November.

Meanwhile, Taylor anchored his curious campaign on the premise that nothing was more important than moving the economy toward recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frontrunners Watkins and LaTurner fought for the title of most genuinely conservative candidate. They engaged in a caustic campaign layered with recriminations financed largely by political action committees eager to twist policy details to fit uncomfortable narratives.

Watkins’ campaign was thunderstruck when he was charged by the Shawnee County district attorney with three felony counts of election fraud and promptly lost the Kansas for Life PAC’s endorsement. The U.S. Army veteran had been named the congressional district’s honorary chairman of Trump’s re-election campaign, but faced questions about spending more than $400,000 in federal tax dollars on ads that were supposed to be about coronavirus but felt more like campaign spots.

“This race is simple. It’s about a lifetime of service versus a lifetime of self-service,” Watkins said after voting in Topeka. “Lyin’ LaTurner voted for the largest tax increase in the history of Kansas. Thank goodness Kansas voters are smart. They know a pro-Trump, pro-America, pro-growth, pro-Constitution candidate when they see one.”

LaTurner, who was appointed state treasurer by Gov. Sam Brownback, was attacked for jumping from the U.S. Senate race at the behest of former Gov. Jeff Colyer. He was pummeled for endorsing a large state tax increase while a member of the Kansas Senate and was accused of brazenly featuring his family in a commercial for a college savings plan administered by the state treasurer.

Estes, the 4th District Republican with token opposition, said Watkins’ behavior “unfortunately put this seat in danger of being handed over to a Nancy Pelosi liberal.”

Taylor, who served as a Cabinet secretary under Brownback and on the Shawnee County Commission, devoted his campaign to advocating for a robust economic recovery program from coronavirus. He pledged to donate half his congressional salary to coronavirus relief, but was a last-minute filer for the office and not expected to knock off either LaTurner or Watkins.

The question circling like a buzzard over the 2nd District contest was whether incumbent Watkins could survive the November general election against a Democrat woman drawing from a playbook developed by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids and Gov. Kelly.

In 2018, Watkins won a seven-person primary with less than 30 percent of the vote after his father dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign. Watkins prevailed in the general election against Democrat Paul Davis by less than 1% of the vote.

“Kansans are ready for a candidate who can win in November,” LaTurner said. “Let’s work together to keep this seat red.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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