Ex-Kansas governor seeks primary challenger for Rep. Watkins

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Former Kansas Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer on Tuesday urged the state treasurer to drop his Senate bid and instead challenge freshman Rep. Steve Watkins in the GOP primary, arguing the move would help "nominate a candidate that can win."

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Colyer's public opposition to a congressman from his own party came less than a week after Watkins, responding to internet rumors and speculation, tweeted that he was not resigning: "Let me get this straight.. I have to deny a resignation that no one called for. Got it. Done. K, going back to work. See you in November."

Colyer issued a statement saying the eastern Kansas district's voters are "solid, conservative folks" who deserve to be represented by someone sharing their values. Spokesman Colton Gibson said Colyer is not taking issue with Watkins on any policy issues but is concerned about "keeping the seat in Republican hands."

"We're talking about electability here," Gibson said.

The former governor argued that if Treasurer Jake LaTurner were to drop out of next year's Senate race and run for the eastern Kansas seat, it would both give the state "an improved" candidate for House and help "clear the logjam" in the Senate race next year.

LaTurner issued a statement saying was humbled by Colyer's "encouraging words" and would take time with his family "to prayerfully consider his suggestion."

The growing GOP field in the Senate race already includes 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. Colyer himself opted out of the race Monday.

Four-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts announced in January that he is not seeking re-election in 2020. The GOP has won every Senate race in Kansas since 1932.

But Kobach lost the governor's race last year to Democrat Laura Kelly after narrowly defeating Colyer in the GOP primary. Colyer had been elevated to governor from lieutenant governor early in the year after then-GOP Gov. Sam Brownback resigned to take an ambassador's post.

"Making sure that we have nominees that are successful at being able to win the general election in both of those races is a high priority," said Kelly Arnold, a former state GOP chairman. "That's kind of what it appears he's looking at."

Watkins is a former Army officer and military contractor who won the seat in 2018 by less than a percentage point as a political unknown after emerging from a crowded Republican primary. President Donald Trump carried the district easily in 2016, and Colyer cited the disparity between Trump's showing and Watkins' result two years later.

After a town hall meeting Monday in Topeka, Watkins declined to explain the tweet dismissing speculation that he could resign.

"I'm going to do my job to the best of my ability," he said as he left the event.

Watkins' spokesman did not return messages seeking comment about Colyer's statement, but his campaign Twitter campaign derided "these attempted political swamp chess moves" in a post Tuesday.

"It is no surprise insiders are once again trying to force out an outsider," another tweet said.

LaTurner, a former state legislator, was appointed by Brownback to fill a vacancy in the treasurer's office in April 2017. He won a full, four-year term last year but announced his run for the Senate in January, within days of Roberts' announcement.

Colyer noted in his statement that LaTurner had nearly $470,000 in his Senate campaign fund at the end of June — while Watkins reported having about $260,000 then.

But when Watkins ran last year, his father, a Topeka physician, was the almost-exclusive source of funding for a political action committee, Kansans Can Do Anything, created to boost his son's candidacy. The elder Watkins contributed nearly $766,000 to the PAC.

Craig McCullah, the GOP chairman for Shawnee County, home to the state capital, said some Republicans still have heartburn over the involvement of Watkins' father. The younger Watkins won the primary with less than 27% of the vote in a seven-candidate field.

"There were a lot of upset people after that primary," McCullah said. There were seven candidates — all good candidates."

Yet McCullah said he doesn't believe Watkins has taken any policy positions that alienate fellow Republicans, and he's skeptical of questions about Watkins' electability. He notes that in 2018, Watkins defeated Democrat Paul Davis, a former legislative leader with a statewide profile because he nearly defeated Brownback in the 2014 governor's race.

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