‘We’re just talking two years.’ GOP officials grapple with doubts about Watkins

GOP candidate Steve Watkins is still taking credit on the campaign trail for launching a company he did not found or own, even as former and current Republican officials are openly expressing doubts about his candidacy.

Party officials, though, have a big reason for hope that Watkins can regain momentum. They’re eager to see if a visit from President Donald Trump, who has also faced scrutiny over exaggerations about a number of topics, can legitimize Watkins in the eyes of voters in a district that went for Trump by 17 percentage points in 2016.

Watkins will share the stage Saturday with Trump and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the GOP nominee for governor, at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka for a rally that GOP officials are hoping will assuage Republican voters’ concerns about Watkins, who has sought to tie himself to Trump since the start of the campaign.

“I’m a build the wall guy,” Watkins said at a Wednesday forum with his 2nd Congressional District opponent, Democrat Paul Davis. “That doesn’t make us mean-spirited or the racist bigots that some leftists would have you believe. It’s just common sense.”

Watkins, an Army veteran and first-time candidate, met with Democratic officials before launching his campaign as a Republican, did not vote in the 2016 election and recently had to remove a quote from his campaign website lauding his heroism during an avalanche on Mount Everest after the person it was attributed to disputed its accuracy.

Watkins has repeatedly brushed off these reports as “fake news” on the campaign trail and has continued to tout his role in VIAP Inc., an engineering and security firm. A Kansas City Star investigation published last week quoted former board members as saying they had no memory of Watkins, who worked for the firm as a consultant but did not own or found the company as he had previously claimed.

Yet Watkins told the crowd Wednesday at a candidate forum in Independence, Kansas, “I helped to start and grow an engineering security outfit from three people to 470 people.”

Watkins’ campaign said in a statement that he’s been consistent in saying that he helped start the company operationally.

Watkins hustled out of the forum immediately after it ended without talking to reporters or talking further to his supporters, who were dumbfounded by his quick exit.

“Kind of makes you wonder,” said Wilson County GOP chairman Kris Marple.

Pat Leopold, who manages Watkins’ campaign, said the candidate mingled with voters before the forum began and left quickly to get sleep ahead of a busy campaign schedule for Thursday.

Marple said he still plans to vote for Watkins — just like many GOP officials who have qualms about the candidate.

“I’m willing to give him a term,” Marple said. “We’re just talking two years. If we come to find out that stuff’s true and he’s really not what he says he is, we’ll replace him in two years, I guess.”

Ed Truelove, a city administrator from Neodesha, Kansas, who attended Wednesday’s forum, said he leans Republican but is undecided in the race because of concerns about Watkins’ credibility.

“What I’ve always been sensitive of as a retired Marine is stolen valor, to me that one’s of the most heinous things that you can do,” Truelove said. “This kind of gets very, very close to that.”

Watkins is in a tossup race with Davis, a former state lawmaker who won the district as a candidate for governor in 2014.

Kay Hensley, a lifelong Republican from Coffeyville who attended Wednesday’s forum, pointed to abortion as the issue that will cause her to vote for Watkins.

“I believe Steve Watkins is pro-life, I absolutely know Paul Davis is not,” she said. “So that’s a given for me.”

The last time a Democrat won the seat was in 2006 when Nancy Boyda won for one term. It’s been a solidly GOP district in the years since Boyda’s win with retiring Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins winning each of the past four elections by double digits.

Watkins hired Leopold, Jenkins’ former chief of staff, to run his campaign in August after winning the seven-person primary with a plurality of 26 percent.

Leopold rejected the notion that Watkins is having trouble uniting Republicans behind his candidacy.

“Once people get to know Steve, with very few exceptions, Republicans are on board. This is a conservative guy with a military background, great business background, who shares their values,” Leopold said.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the senior member of the state’s congressional delegation, said he was unfamiliar with the questions that had been raised about Watkins’ campaign trail claims. He said was impressed with the candidate when they met in person.

“He seemed liked a hard charger for sure,” Roberts said.

Both parties have sunk major dollars into the race.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has spent more than $2.6 million on the race and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $1.9 million to boost Davis, according to Federal Election Commission records.

CLF’s attack ads have largely retread attacks used by former Gov. Sam Brownback’s campaign in 2014 about Davis’ presence at a strip club during a police drug raid in 1998. Davis was never accused of any wrongdoing, but his name appeared in a police report that identified him as one of the club’s attorneys.

Republican Party leadership sees Watkins as a “loaner,” one GOP operative in Kansas said. “One term and he’s out...For Republicans, at least for the party, it’s, ‘Get Steve through the race and then deal with him.’”

The rally with Trump comes only two months after Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Topeka native Brad Parscale, wrote an open letter condemning Watkins’ unauthorized use of images of the president in campaign material before the primary.

“It will legitimize his campaign,” Connie O’Brien, a former state lawmaker and the vice chair of the Leavenworth County Republican Party, said of Trump’s visit.

It’ll mark the first time a president has campaigned for a candidate in the district since George W. Bush came to Topeka to stump for then-Rep. Jim Ryun in 2006, a year Republicans lost both the seat and control of the House.

O’Brien and her husband were among 40 county GOP officials to sign a letter in opposition to Watkins ahead of the primary, but she’s thrown her support behind him after attending a meeting in late August where Watkins’ childhood friends vouched for his integrity.

“We were concerned just that he was new and nobody really knew him… but he had character witnesses there, people who grew up with him,” O’Brien said.

While many party activists have slowly embraced Watkins, key constituencies in the state remain wary of backing him. The Kansas Farm Bureau PAC has yet to endorse in the race and may sit it out entirely after its preferred candidate lost the GOP primary.

Watkins is “still an unknown in Kansas politics in large parts of the 2nd district,” said Jeff King, the former vice president of the Kansas Senate who lives in Independence.

“I think Kansas Republicans have some natural concern about someone who only recently moved back to the state and took some meetings with Democrats,” King said, noting that voters in southeast Kansas value handshake time.

Lindsay Wise of The McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Bryan Lowry: 202-383-6167, @BryanLowry3