Rep. Steve Watkins made it clear as he campaigned last fall: He was going to “drain the swamp.” But now that he’s on Capitol Hill, he’s surrounded himself with political insiders who collectively have more than 30 years of congressional experience.
It’s a strategic move that the Kansas Republican and former Army captain compared to the approach the military takes in a war zone.
“They’re well-connected and I need that. It’s not unlike going to Iraq or Afghanistan. We went in with a command directive and we needed to partner with locals to get things done,” said Watkins, who represents Kansas’ 2nd congressional district.
Watkins, who never held elected office before Jan. 3, often touted his status as an outsider on the campaign trail.
But with a tough re-election looming, Watkins is now defining himself as a pragmatic conservative, and he’s turned to veteran congressional hands to help get him established.
“It’s important that a leader realizes he doesn’t have all the answers. He needs to be smart enough to know there are things he doesn’t know,” Watkins said.
His staff’s savvy could be crucial because over the past two years Kansas has gone from having one of the most experienced House delegations to one of the least. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, is now the longest-serving member of the four-member House delegation after only two years in Congress.
Watkins has also built a team with deep ties to the Kansas Republican Party.
He tapped Colin Brainard, a former chief of staff to predecessor Rep. Lynn Jenkins, to run the office. Watkins hired Jim Joice, a former aide to Rep. Kevin Yoder and Kansas Republican Party official, as communications director.
These moves are helping assuage concerns that some Kansas Republicans still harbor about Watkins, who met with Democratic officials before launching his run as a Republican and prevailed in a seven-person primary with 26 percent of the vote after his father poured $765,000 into a super PAC that was set up to help Watkins win the primary.
“I think people notice the hires he’s making, the efforts he’s making to learn from people with more experience,” said Jeff King, a former Kansas Senate vice president who lives in Watkins’ district and previously voiced skepticism about him as a candidate.
When Watkins was running for office, one county GOP chair told The Kansas City Star that Watkins could always be replaced in two years if he didn’t live up to his promises.
“My feelings haven’t changed,” said Kris Marple, whose term as Wilson County GOP chair ended in November.
“I’m still willing to give him a term… Any newcomer who hasn’t held public office, they got to have one term (for voters) to know their voting record and if what they campaigned on is what they stand for,” Marple said.
Watkins won the general election against a well-funded and better-known Democratic opponent by 2 percentage points after national Republican groups steered millions into the race.
“I’m not an outsider anymore. You took a leap of faith, I won’t let you down,” Watkins told supporters at his election night party.
In addition to Brainard, the rest of Watkins’ staff is almost entirely made up of former Jenkins staffers.
He’s using her former district offices in Kansas to create a sense of continuity for constituents. During The Star’s visit to his Capitol Hill office, a phone rang and the staffer who answered had to explain to the caller that Jenkins has retired.
Watkins is spending his nights in Washington on a cot in the office.
He said the indefinite arrangement is necessary so that he and his wife, Fong Liu, a Massachusetts-based ob-gyn, can save money to purchase a home in the district.
Watkins has been renting a house in Topeka since moving back to the state where he grew up after graduating with a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2017.
Buying a house in the district and building a staff with links to the Kansas Republican Party are important moves to protect Watkins against a primary challenge in 2020 in a state where intraparty battles are common.
Watkins needs to establish himself as a lawmaker quickly and his early moves suggest that he intends be a Jenkins-style pragmatist.
He joined the Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — a group that had included Jenkins and Yoder — during his second week in Congress. The group, which is made up of members of both parties, has the stated policy goals of balancing the budget and protecting Medicare and Social Security.
Watkins has also been meeting with fellow Kansas freshman Rep. Sharice Davids, the lone Democrat in the delegation, to discuss areas where they can collaborate.
“She’s an amazing person. I think I can start calling her a friend,” said Watkins, noting his appreciation for the historic significance of Davids’ victory as one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.
Watkins is also making moves to boost his support with state’s social conservatives.
The first bill that Watkins is co-sponsoring is legislation to block federal dollars from going to Planned Parenthood. Conservative Republicans have for years called for Planned Parenthood to be defunded.
The organization receives federal Medicaid dollars for women’s health services. It also provides abortion services but does not receive direct federal payments for that.
Watkins’ wife served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Alabama and volunteered as a patient escort for the organization in the early 2000s as a medical student. Watkins has repeatedly asserted his anti-abortion stance and has said he and his wife disagree on the issue.
After he won the primary, Kansans For Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion organization, endorsed Watkins despite initial hesitation. The group made clear that he needed to establish an anti-abortion voting record to count on its support in future elections.
Watkins called the legislation consistent with his values and said he didn’t discuss the bill with Kansans For Life before co-sponsoring the bill.
Mark Kahrs, Kansas’ Republican national committeeman, said that it will be near impossible for Watkins to get legislation passed as a freshman Republican in the Democratic-led House.
But he’ll have lots of opportunities to establish his conservative credentials by voting “no” on Democratic-authored bills, Kahrs said.
“I do think he’s consolidating support,” Kahrs said. “I anticipate he will be a center-right congressman in the mold of Lynn Jenkins.”