“Jill, this is Sergeant Sacker. Listen to me. We've traced the call... it's coming from inside the house.” — from the 1979 horror film classic, "When a Stranger Calls"
On Aug. 30, Republican incumbent 2nd District Congressman Steve Watkins’ campaign team sent out a fundraising email that stated, “Pelosi and the liberal elite are determined to take Steve down.”
Given what’s been going on in the last few weeks among Kansas Republicans one could easily make the argument that speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is the least of Watkins’ worries. The people determined to take him down are inside his own party.
The political drama began on Aug. 23, when politicos in the state began to murmur that Watkins might have to resign. The Kansas Republican party’s executive director, Shannon Golden, even confirmed that there was a conference call among party leaders to discuss the issue. In American politics, resignation of a sitting congressperson is almost always due to one of two things: grave illness or embarrassing scandal.
For his part, Watkins tweeted out that same day that he was denying a resignation “that no one called for.” In the end, no evidence of any scandal emerged, so all the resignation talk was befuddling.
On Aug. 27, former Gov. Jeff Colyer, after announcing that he wouldn’t be running for U.S. Senate, openly encouraged Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner to drop his bid for Senate and instead challenge Watkins in the 2nd District primary. In his statement, Colyer wrote, “The citizens of the 2nd Congressional District are solid, conservative folks who deserve to be represented by a Republican that shares their values.”
Colyer’s statements do not indicate major policy differences with Watkins. Colyer called upon LaTurner to run because he apparently thinks Watkins could lose the seat to the Democrats and his belief that Watkins doesn’t “share the values” of the “solid” folks of the district.
The two seem to be linked. In other words, past bad press about Watkins (an allegation that appeared in 2018 of an unwanted sexual advance) or possible current or future incidents, could be used effectively by Democrats to pummel Watkins with negative attacks in the fall of 2020. This is exactly what the Republicans did to Watkins’ opponent in 2018, Paul Davis (remember the endless ads with the refrain “Sleazy Paul Davis”?), over Davis’ appearance at a strip club during a police raid in 1998.
Act III of this political drama occurred on Sept. 4, when LaTurner announced he would indeed drop out of the Senate race and challenge Watkins in the August 2020 primary. Echoing Colyer, LaTurner said, “We must nominate a Republican that can win the general election.” For his part, LaTurner is particularly well-positioned to capture the “family values” vote that Colyer and a faction of Kansas Republicans are worried Watkins can’t.
For his part, Watkins is taking on the challenge, with his campaign spokesman saying, “Jake LaTurner’s entire career has been political ladder-climbing — and that climb ends in August.”
Despite all these machinations, at this point there still is not a lot of clarity about all that has gone on — or is going on — in the Kansas 2nd District. The only thing we know for sure now is that we have a primary battle between two party heavyweights.
And if they treat each other like Paul Davis was treated, voters can expect more alarming calls from within.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.