TOPEKA, Kan. — Republicans are trying to hold on to an eastern Kansas congressional seat Tuesday with a little-known candidate who spent most of his adult life outside the state and was caught embellishing his credentials.
The district represented by retiring GOP Rep. Lynn Jenkins leans Republican and President Donald Trump carried it by nearly 17 percentage points two years ago. Republican Steve Watkins emerged from a bruising seven-person primary that saw one opponent label him a "fraud" and some local leaders question his commitment to the party.
"I just can't trust Steve Watkins," said Allan Willis, a 44-year-old Democrat and excavating foreman from Topeka.
Willis voted for Democrat Democrat Paul Davis, a former Kansas House minority leader and Lawrence attorney, who carried the district in an unsuccessful run for governor in 2014 and raised $3.6 million for his congressional race.
Watkins had Trump's endorsement and help from a relatively strong economy. Tuffy Radford, a 37-year-old Republican from Topeka, was confident enough about the economy earlier this year to start his own tile-setting business after struggling to find work a few years ago. He voted for Watkins.
"I need to keep the economy going in my direction," he said. "The economy's booming."
Davis pitched himself to voters as a commonsense centrist who worked with Republicans during his legislative career. He started his campaign by promising that he wouldn't support Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for House speaker if Democrats recapture a majority.
He also stressed health care issues, promising to fight to keep prescription drug prices in check and protect health coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
None of those stances prevented Republicans, including Watkins, from attacking Davis as a Pelosi liberal.
Watkins himself emerged as an issue despite his attractive profile as a political outsider and a West Point graduate who served in Afghanistan and then worked there, in Iraq and in Central Asia as a government contractor. He's run the famed Iditarod dog sled race twice in Alaska and attempted to scale Mount Everest in 2015.
But he was caught exaggerating his role in a small business in the Middle East and removed a quote about his "heroic leadership" during the Mount Everest expedition attributed to his guide, after the guide told The Associated Press that he'd never said it.
Even before, Republican critics noted that the Topeka native had spent most of his adult life living outside Kansas and had not voted in the state until a municipal election in November 2017, after he'd decided to run for Congress.
Also, Watkins' father, a Topeka physician, was heavily involved in the race as the almost-exclusive source of funding for a political action committee, Kansans Can Do Anything, boosting his son's candidacy. The elder Watkins contributed more than $765,000 to the PAC.
One former GOP foe, ex-state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, called him "a charlatan, a fraud and an opportunist," days before the August primary, though he later wouldn't criticize Watkins. Some GOP leaders also were wary of him after three Democrats said publicly that he met with them last year about running as a Democrat — something he strongly disputed.