Kansas Republican Steve Watkins liked Facebook posts describing police officers as “thug criminals” and racist a few years before he became a candidate for the House and gained the full-throated backing of President Donald Trump — an enthusiastic defender of the police.
Watkins, a political newcomer, got a major boost earlier this month when Trump came to Topeka to boost his campaign.
Trump has persistently decried protests against police as unpatriotic.
Two days after Trump campaigned with Watkins, he told a gathering of police chiefs in Florida that “politicians who spread this dangerous anti-police sentiment make life easier for criminals and more dangerous for law-abiding citizens, and they also make it more dangerous for police, and it must stop, and it must stop now.”
But long before he ran for office, Watkins, now the Republican nominee in Kansas’ 2nd congressional district, repeatedly engaged on Facebook with Antonio Buehler, a self-described cop watcher who has faced multiple arrests related to his efforts to film police officers in Austin.
Watkins liked a 2012 post in which Buehler wrote that he “would almost feel sorry” for two officers who had arrested him that year “if they weren’t such thug criminals, as their world is about to come down around them.”
Watkins liked a 2013 post that referred to a police officer as a coward and responded to a 2012 post about a cop watching event by writing, “Great work Antonio!”
Watkins also liked a 2014 post from Buehler that decried the New York City Police Department as racist after the death of Eric Garner from a chokehold.
Bryan Piligra, Watkins’ campaign spokesman, said in a statement that Watkins “has the utmost respect for law enforcement” and that as a former Army captain he is “the only candidate in this race who will preserve law and order in Congress.”
Piligra added that as “a result of Antonio’s views becoming more radical over the years, Steve is no longer supportive or informed of his efforts.”
Buehler was acquitted of all charges related to the 2012 arrest, but a federal lawsuit he filed against the city and police was unsuccessful. The officers involved in the incident were cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
After the 2012 arrest, Buehler founded the Peaceful Streets Project, a grassroots organization in Austin with a stated mission of ending police abuse.
The group’s Facebook page now includes images that compare police to the Ku Klux Klan and profanity-laced rants about police. A Monday post from the group laments that an incident involving California police and an escaped pig didn’t result in “any pig on pigs crime.”
Both Buehler and Watkins graduated from West Point in 1999. Buehler did not immediately respond to a phone call Tuesday.
Watkins is set to have a fundraiser Friday with Vice President Mike Pence, a sign of the importance the tossup race has for GOP chances of maintaining control of the U.S. House.
Watkins faces Democrat Paul Davis in the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins.
Sean McCauley, the attorney for the Kansas State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in an email that Watkins’ previous support of the cop watcher group affirms the organization’s decision to endorse Davis in the race.
“These anti-police websites have had a deep and abiding impact on law enforcement throughout the United States. They have driven officers from the profession and greatly discouraged others from entering it. If, in fact, Mr. Watkins supported the proliferation of the messages found in these articles and posts, it clearly shows that he is no friend of law enforcement,” McCauley said.
The National Republican Congressional Committee launched an ad Tuesday attacking Davis for his legal work on behalf a strip club that was raided for drugs in 1998.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with links to House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has spent nearly $2.9 million in support of Watkins, who met with Democratic officials before launching a bid as a Republican.
At the same time that the PAC has been boosting Watkins, it has been airing attack ads in the adjacent 3rd congressional district portraying Democrat Sharice Davids as anti-police because of comments she made at a candidate forum about police use of force.
Neither CLF, nor the NRCC immediately commented on Watkins’ decision to like Buehler’s Facebook posts.
Other Kansas candidates have also faced scrutiny for their handling of the contentious debate about policing.
The Kansas Democratic Party withdrew its support from its nominee for state attorney general, Sarah Swain, after a poster at her law office depicting Wonder Woman lassoing a police officer by the neck drew outrage from police groups.