Kansas Republican dropping Senate bid to challenge GOP rep

Kansas Republican dropping Senate bid to challenge GOP rep
© Greg Nash

Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner (R) announced Wednesday that he will drop his Senate bid to launch a primary challenge against freshman Rep. Steve WatkinsSteven (Steve) Charles WatkinsThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies Trump pushed for her ouster The Hill's Morning Report — The wall problem confronting Dems and the latest on Dorian Kansas Republican dropping Senate bid to challenge GOP rep MORE (R-Kan.) for the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

“Second District residents deserve a solid conservative fighter they can count on,” LaTurner said in a statement.

“I wake up every day appalled at the news coming from the Democrats in Washington, DC. They want to transform America into a country that we would not recognize," he added. "The 2020 election is a critical one for our state and nation. We must nominate a Republican that can win the general election and fight for our conservative principles.”

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The news comes after he received encouragement from former Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) to challenge Watkins last month.

“Republicans in Kansas’ Second Congressional District need a candidate that can win the general election in 2020,” Colyer tweeted in August.

“I call on #SEK native @JakeLaTurner to seek the Republican nomination for the 2nd Congressional District and Republicans across Kansas to unite behind his campaign.”

LaTurner said while Colyer’s push played a sizable role in his decision, it was not the only factor. 

“Well, listen, that had a lot to do with me taking a serious look at it. At the end of the day, the reason, and it was a tough choice, but at the end of the day, we decided to go for it because we think the seat is in jeopardy of going into Democrat hands,” he told The Hill in an interview. 

“So, you know, we made the hard decision  to make a change to make certain that we keep this seat."

The Kansas Republican noted that former Rep. Lynn JenkinsLynn Haag JenkinsFormer GOP Rep. Costello launches lobbying shop Kansas Republican dropping Senate bid to challenge GOP rep Anti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door' MORE (R-Kansas), whom he previously worked for, won the seat by a significantly larger margin than Watkins before she retired, alleging Watkins has not laid the groundwork needed to win a second term. 

“As Gov. Colyer pointed out a week ago, you know, there's been poor fundraising on his [Watkins] part, there's been a lack of coalition building throughout the district, the previous occupant of this seat, Lynn Jenkins, work doggedly to make certain that she raised the funds necessary and that she worked hard in the district building coalitions and talking to people,” he said. 

“And she won on average by nearly 60 percent over five elections that she ran, and then the general. And Congressman Watkins won the primary with 26 percent of the vote. It was a fluke that he won the primary, there were just so many people in the race and then barely squeaked by in the general.”

LaTurner’s announcement also comes in the wake of recent rumors that Watkins planned and was receiving pressure to resign from his seat, an allegation the Kansas Republican adamantly denies.

“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,” he recently tweeted.

Watkins won the strongly Republican district by roughly 1 point during the 2018 midterm election cycle.

"The contrast could not be more clear — a life of service versus a life of self-service," Watkins campaign spokesman Bryan Piligrasaid said in a Wednesday statement. "Congressman Watkins is a war veteran, engineer and conservative leader who votes in support of our president 93 percent of the time. Jake LaTurner is a career politician who has voted for tax increases and sides with labor unions over hard-working Kansans. Jake LaTurner's entire career has been political ladder-climbing — and that climb ends in August."

Strategists in the state have said that LaTurner's strong ground game and early fundraising advantage due to his Senate bid could give him an edge in the race.

“I think Steve is in trouble. Jake’s got a good team, a ton of money, and is squeaky clean. The Watkins team has almost entirely turned over in the last few months, and they can’t escape his bad reputation,” one Kansas GOP operative told The Hill.

LaTurner currently has $470,000 in cash on hand compared to Watkins’s $260,000. Watkins also faces $270,000 in debt, providing LaTurner a significant advantage in campaign funding.

But other observers noted it’s difficult to oust an incumbent and it’s early in the race.

LaTurner's announcement also narrows the Senate field, easing the fears of some critics of Kris Kobach, who have expressed concern that the large number of candidates in the race could increase the controversial former Kansas secretary of state's chances of obtaining the nomination.

—Updated at 4:50 p.m.