Watkins touts outsider status; Davis resents ties to national party


National News

September 6, 2018 - 11:21 AM

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Paul Davis says he’s frustrated, but he doesn’t really show it.
Sitting at a wooden desk in his campaign office in downtown Lawrence, the bespectacled Democrat matter-of-factly states that he’s irked by Republican efforts to tie him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But he quickly pivoted to money in politics.
“It’s frustrating because you have a super PAC that’s funded by billionaires that don’t live here,” Davis said. “And whenever that happens I think the voices of everyday Kansans get drowned out”
“I stated on the very first day that I got into this campaign that I wasn’t going to support Nancy Pelosi,” Davis later said in a recent interview here. “And what they are implying is directly contrary to what my position is.”
The day after the Kansas primary last month, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership known as the Congressional Leadership Fund launched a television ad tying Davis to Pelosi.
The group has done the same in a slew of other races, dusting off a familiar playbook of tying Democrats to a leader who Republicans view as polarizing and unpopular. CLF has launched Pelosi-themed attacks even against candidates like Davis, who have said they won’t support Pelosi for leader. The ads say these candidates will support Pelosi’s agenda anyway.
But Davis, like these other Democrats in GOP-leaning districts, argues that he’s willing to break with his party. And he doesn’t think the Pelosi playbook will work this time.
While Republicans try to tie him to the national party, Davis is focused on other issues, and Democrats believe he puts Kansas’ 2nd District in play.
On the surface this district is a tough target for Democrats — President Donald Trump won it by 18 points in 2016. But a GOP retirement — combined with Davis’ strength as a candidate and potential drag with Republican Kris Kobach at the top of the ticket — has Democrats eyeing the seat. Roll Call’s Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race “tilts Republican.”
First Davis, like other candidates across the country, has to counter attempts to tie him to the national party.
He responded to the Congressional Leadership Fund ad with an ad of his own, saying he didn’t support Pelosi. Two of Davis’ former GOP colleagues in the state House also defended Davis in the Topeka Capital-Journal following CLF’s ad. They vouched for his bipartisanship in the legislature, with one calling him “one of the most bipartisan or nonpartisan legislators I ever dealt with.”
The question for Davis is whether he can keep the focus on local issues and his own record while national dynamics swirl around the race.
Davis said he plans to stress his ties to the district and his willingness to work with both parties to address issues relating to health care, prescription drug costs, the economy and tariffs that could hurt the agricultural industry in the district.
The former Kansas House minority leader won the 2nd District while running for governor in 2014, and he already has a sizable campaign war chest with $942,000 on hand as of July 18.
But Davis’ GOP opponent plans to use his political experience against him.
“I’m a political outsider going up against a career politician,” Steve Watkins said in an interview in Kansas City, Mo.
Watkins won a crowded primary on Aug. 7 with just 26 percent of the vote as the only candidate who hadn’t held elected office. He said uniting Republicans is one of his immediate tasks, along with fundraising and building his campaign team.
Watkins’ campaign had $125,000 on hand at the end of the pre-primary reporting period. Watkins’ father has been willing to spend to support his son though, financing a super PAC that was active in the primary.
Watkins, an Afghanistan War veteran who later worked as an independent defense contractor overseas, faced questions about his conservative credentials in the primary after news broke that he met with Democrats before announcing his run.
Watkins denies he ever considered running for Congress as a Democrat, and said he took the meeting with a transportation lobbyist to learn more about that policy area. He also touted a statement from Dan Crenshaw, a Republican Navy SEAL running for Congress in Texas, who vouched for Watkins’ conservatism. The two are close friends and were classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Watkins’ criticism in the primary highlights one issue for him: He doesn’t have a record in the state to prove his conservatism. Watkins returned to the district after roughly two decades away from the area. He left the Topeka area after high school to attend West Point.
Watkins said an injury he suffered while working as an independent contractor in Afghanistan caused him to rethink his career — and his sister suggested electoral politics. He declined to say how he was injured, citing “personal reasons.”
Watkins admits he was not well versed in politics while focused on his work, and so he decided to go to Harvard. He moved back to Kansas’ 2nd District after graduating from Harvard in 2017, and decided to run after GOP Rep. Lynn Jenkins retired.
Watkins also registered to vote in the district last year, a source of criticism in the primary. He did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, and said he believed he was most recently registered to vote as an independent in Alaska.
Davis said Watkins’ outsider profile might appeal to some voters in the district, but pointed out that Watkins has not lived in the area for years.
“I think by and large people want to have somebody who knows them and knows their communities,” said Davis. “It’s very difficult for somebody who has been in Alaska for the last couple of decades to suddenly show up on the scene in Kansas and understand what’s going on in our communities and what people really want to see in Washington.”
Davis was first appointed to the state House in 2002, and served as the minority leader from 2009 to 2015. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014, but won the 2nd District in that race. Davis said he specifically wants to work with Republicans on drug prices and transportation issues if elected to Congress.
While Davis is stressing his bipartisanship, Watkins said he heard from Republican voters that they want an outsider “to help Donald Trump drain the swamp.” He wants to keep the seat in GOP hands, and part of that involves tying Davis to Pelosi and national Democrats.
Asked about Davis’ pledge not to support Pelosi, Watkins leaned back in his chair and laughed.
“Of course he’d say that,” Watkins said. “He wants to get elected. But it’s not true. … If given the opportunity he’s going to side with Nancy Pelosi, not Kansans.”

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