TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' Republican state treasurer on Wednesday abandoned a campaign for an open Senate seat to challenge a GOP freshman congressman that he describes as vulnerable to Democratic defeat.
Treasurer Jake LaTurner's announcement came little more than a week after former GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer publicly called on him to run for the 2nd District seat in eastern Kansas that Rep. Steve Watkins narrowly won last year. Watkins has faced internet rumors and speculation that he would resign but has tweeted that he won't step down.
LaTurner said in an Associated Press interview before his announcement that the speculation played no role in his decision and that he takes Watkins at his word that he will not resign. Instead, LaTurner said he worries that if Watkins is the GOP nominee, Democrats will pick up the seat, as they nearly did in 2018.
"It should not be a seat that is in play," LaTurner said. "It was in play, big-time, this last election, and it's going to be in play again if he's the nominee for the party."
Watkins, a former Army officer and military contractor, won by less than a percentage point as a political unknown who emerged from a crowded GOP primary. President Donald Trump carried the district easily in 2016, and both LaTurner and Colyer have cited the difference between Trump's showing and Watkins' result two years later.
Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins held the seat for a decade after ousting a one-term Democratic incumbent in 2008, and averaged nearly 60 percent of the vote in four races for re-election. Before that, the seat had been held by Republicans for 12 years. In the 2018 general election, Watkins faced Democrat Paul Davis, a former legislative leader with a statewide profile, because he nearly won the 2014 governor's race.
Watkins' campaign has suggested on Twitter that defeating Davis in a nationally targeted race shows that the 42-year-old congressman is a strong candidate for re-election.
The race will be "a life of service versus a life of self-service," Watkins spokesman Bryan Piligra said in a statement Wednesday.
"Jake LaTurner's entire career has been political ladder-climbing — and that climb ends in August," Piligra said, referencing the primary next year.
Local GOP leaders expressed misgivings about Watkins ahead of the 2018 primary, though many said he later won them over after capturing the nomination with less than 27 percent of the vote. Watkins' campaign said he has voted with Trump some 93 percent of the time.
But University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said last year's election results told some Republicans that Watkins is "someone you can take down."
"The blood has been in the water," Miller said. "Watkins was ripe for a primary challenger to emerge even before any of these rumors started swirling."
The only Democrat running so far is Abbie Hodgson, a 37-year-old former speechwriter for Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who later worked for the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington.
LaTurner, 31, is a former Jenkins staffer who was elected to the Kansas Senate in 2012. He served there until being appointed to fill a vacancy in the treasurer's office in 2017, and won a full, four-year term as treasurer last year. LaTurner launched his U.S. Senate campaign only days after four-term GOP Sen. Pat Roberts announced in January that he wasn't seeking re-election in 2020.
Colyer also urged LaTurner to switch races because the field in the U.S. Senate contest already included six candidates, including Kris Kobach, nationally known for advocating tough immigration policies. Many Republicans fear Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, will win the nomination, alienate moderates and put a normally safe GOP seat at risk.
GOP Rep. Roger Marshall of western Kansas has said he will discuss his plans during an event Saturday at the Kansas State Fair, and he's expected to jump into the Senate race.
Kobach lost the governor's race last year to Democrat Laura Kelly after narrowly defeating Colyer in the GOP primary. Kobach's critics within the GOP argue that he benefits from a crowded field and fractured vote.
LaTurner said such concerns were not a factor in his decision. He said he focused on how Watkins could "turn the (House) seat over to a liberal Democrat."
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