Steven Charles Watkins Jr. (born September 18, 1976) is an American politician serving as the U.S. Representative for Kansas's 2nd congressional district since 2019. He is a member of the Republican Party. On August 4, 2020 he was defeated for reelection in the Republican primary.
Born on September 18, 1976 at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Watkins attended high school in Topeka, Kansas and left to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, graduating in 1999. He is a graduate from the following military schools: Ranger, Airborne, Sapper, Air Assault, and Pathfinder. He was stationed at Fort Richardson in Alaska in 2000. He saw combat in 2004 in Khost Province and conducted combat patrols on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, attaining the rank of Captain. He began running dogs in Alaska in 2000, and competed in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He finished in 58th place in 2015, ninth from last, and almost four days behind the top three mushers. He did not finish the race in March 2018, having dropped out at Unalakleet, 261 miles (420 km) from the finish in Nome.
Watkins spent five years on active duty with the United States Army. After this, he began working as a defense contractor in Afghanistan, beginning in late 2004. In a 2015 Washington Post interview, he said he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2013, and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder almost a decade prior. He told reporters his injury was a "tipping point" propelling him in the direction of "a more conventional life".
U.S. House of Representatives
Watkins' father, a physician, set up a political action committee (PAC) to underwrite his son's primary campaign. It made two initial $64,000 advertising purchases during the primary. Local Republican Party leaders expressed concerns about Watkins' background. Kansas state Senator Steve Fitzgerald, a primary candidate, noted that Watkins had never voted in Kansas until a recent local election. In July, Donald Trump's 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, stated that Watkins and a second candidate for the seat, Dennis Pyle, had put out campaign ads with Trump's photo on them, without authorization, to impute endorsements by the president. Watkins was endorsed by U.S. Representative Roger Marshall, from Kansas Congressional District 1. Watkins won the nomination over six other candidates with 26.5% of the vote. His family's Super PAC had spent $710,010 supporting his candidacy, and $35,860 opposing Caryn Tyson, the Parscale-endorsed primary candidate who finished second.
Watkins forgave $225,100 he loaned his campaign in 2018 according to a letter filed with the (FEC). His personal loans represented much of what he had declared as his wealth that year, somewhere between $440,053 and $2.7 million. FEC rules allow candidates to lend their campaigns unlimited amounts of their own money but they can only use funds raised after the election to repay up to $250,000 of outstanding personal loans. Twenty days after an election, a candidate must forgive any personal loans to their campaign exceeding $250,000. Watkins lent his campaign $475,100, but it had just $4,625 cash on hand 20 days after the November 2018 election. Watkins’ campaign treasurer notified the FEC that he had forgiven $225,100. Watkins’ family gave more than $765,000 into its Super PAC to help Steve win the 7-way GOP primary. It had $6,115.40 cash left on hand by the end of 2018. Super PACs can raise unlimited funds but are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates.
It was announced in March 2020 that the FEC is also reviewing campaign contributions made by Watkins' father, but reported as having been made by Watkins' sisters, as well as others during the 2018 campaign. Those allegations caused a watchdog group, nominally independent, though dominated by establishment Republicans such as former Nevada Attorney General and former gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt, to file an ethics complaint against him in March 2020, centered on the misreporting of contributions and voting in the wrong city district in a Topeka election for a minor office. The FEC's probe focused on the role his family's money played in his election. Referring to his own role, Watkins Sr. told reporters, "I had no idea that was improper." In Nevada, Laxalt was viewed to have ethics problems, particularly with the nolle prosse of a Sheriff with whom he was allied who was accused sexual harassment. Laxalt was also known for his dependence on contributions from and as a defender of the Kansas political operative Koch Brothers's "dark money" campaign interventions. In December 2019 Watkins' campaign had accumulated about $30,000 in legal expenses since the 2018 election, related to a pending FEC issue. Jim Joice, his campaign spokesperson said, "Congressman Watkins will continue focusing on what has made him successful and built a nearly 30 point lead against his opponent-standing with President Trump, defending conservative values, and battling the political swamp." Watkins Sr. had contributed $765,000 into a PAC funding the 2018 race.
Many of the Republican Party officials who had expressed concerns, including Fitzgerald, endorsed Watkins in the general election against the better-known Democrat Paul Davis, who had carried the congressional district in 2014, while losing a close gubernatorial general election to Sam Brownback. Bob Beatty, a political scientist from Topeka, Kansas's Washburn University suggested that the Republican Party had taken a risk with Watkins, because he had not previously been politically active.
In October, the Associated Press published a story questioning a number of details of Watkins' claimed background, including a debunked assertion which he had made on his website that he had been praised by outfitter Guy Cotter for his leadership among climbers on Mount Everest after the Nepal earthquake. The assertion was removed from his website after the story was published. A New Zealand Herald story indicated that Watkins was 600 meters above the South Base Camp when the latter was hit by a deadly landslide and avalanche.
Five weeks before the general election, the Kansas City Star reported that Watkins had claimed in two different Kansas counties to have established a corporation, even saying he had opted to take no salary so that his employees would remain on the job. The paper found he had actually only consulted with the firm long after it had been incorporated. Watkins' campaign described the accusations as "fake news" and quoted Watkins saying the were, "baseless opinions from people who don’t know me."
The general election campaign, against moderate "Blue Dog Democrat" Davis, was described in the U.S. News and World Report as "one of the most negative and competitive congressional races in the country". A Siena College Research Institute/New York Times poll conducted September 21, 2018, showed Davis with a 1% lead and possessing higher favorability ratings, 37% vs. 21%. The candidates debated on October 3, agreeing on a need to protect Social Security, but disagreeing on immigration. Watkins said he was in favor of Trump's proposed border wall, saying, "That doesn’t make us mean-spirited or the racist bigots that some leftists would have you believe. It’s just common sense." He called for restricting health care spending, but protecting Social Security. On October 6, 2018, President Trump spoke at a standing-room-only rally in Topeka, Kansas, in favor of Watkins and also gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach, who later lost. Trump said that voting for Davis "is a vote for the radical agenda" of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and "the legendary Maxine Waters," a California congresswoman. The paper wrote that "even a moment's attention from the president was the best thing that could have happened to [Watkins'] campaign."
On November 6, 2018, Watkins defeated Davis by 0.8 percentage points, taking all but the two most populous and urbanized counties – Shawnee (home to Topeka) and Douglas (home to Lawrence) – which Davis won by wide margins.
In 2019, Republican leaders searched for a primary opponent to run against Watkins in 2020. Former Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer urged State Treasurer Jake LaTurner to drop his U.S. Senate candidacy and instead run for the District 2 seat. Colyer noted that LaTurner had $470,000 in his campaign treasury, while Watkins, a "vulnerable" candidate, had only $260,000 remaining in his. Watkins stated that the party's misgivings about his candidacy were due to his "outsider" status. After dropping out of the 2020 U.S. Senate race, LaTurner hired Pat Leopold, former chief of staff for Lynn Jenkins, Watkins' predecessor, to be a consultant for his 2020 second district primary. Leopold had also been Watkins' 2018 campaign manager. Colyer had urged LaTurner to challenge Watkins due to Colyer's concerns that Watkins could not be re-elected in 2020. Watkins expected a competitive race in 2020 in which President Trump's support would be critical. On August 4, 2020, in his reelection bid, Watkins lost the Republican primary to Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner who will run against Topeka Democratic Mayor, Michelle De La Isla, in the November 3, general election.
Watkins retained Jenkins' chief of staff, Colin Brainerd, in his administration. At a July 30, 2019 town hall in Topeka, Watkins did not take any questions from the audience. When reporters tried to speak with him, they were blocked by his staffers. In Topeka in August, Watkins read from prepared remarks and his spokesman didn't allow for questions from reporters at the close of a one-hour town hall. Also in August 2019, at Fort Scott, Kansas, Watkins at first said he would take reporters' questions. He received a phone call and then ignored questions, according to an article in the Kansas City Star by Bryan Lowry and Jonathan Shorman, from reporters who encountered him at a constituent meeting where he had been talking about aiding veterans. Watkins had resisted pleas from constituents for his support of stringent background checks for gun buyers and insistence on the implementation of laws enabling law enforcement to temporarily seize firearms from those who gave reason to believe that they were of potential harm to themselves or others. He said that losses of life to gun violence broke his heart. "As Republicans, we are working tirelessly to combat gun violence and have enacted laws that put more resources in mental health, providing training for guidance counselors, fund grants for law enforcement, and to provide money to harden schools." He said House GOP members in 2018, before his tenure, "led the way" to strengthen background checks and to do away with "bump stocks" which enable semi-automatic guns to fire as do automatics. He said the GOP intends to address the patchwork of concealed-gun laws. His staffer Allen Askew stood near the front of the room close to Watkins with an open-carry firearm on his hip.
Topeka's Danielle Twemlow, of the anti-gun violence organization "Moms Demand Action," said passage of so-called red flag laws allowing guns to be taken from volatile people along with the passage of consequential background checks on gun buys would stem violence more effectively than funding mental health services. She continued, "We have lots and lots of research that really shows that mental health is not the issue." She said a study published in Preventative Medicine in July clarified "...that access to guns is the main issue, which really makes sense for a lot of people." Twemlow said criminals can easily get firearms since the federal background check system was full of holes. She was applauded when she asked, "I want to know what you’re planning to do to make us safer?" Two weeks later, Watkins voted against the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Kansas Republican Party leaders were sufficiently concerned regarding any speculation that they held a conference call on August 20 to discuss potential fallout according to the Kansas party's executive director, Shannon Golden. Brainard said he would step down as chief of staff in August, which followed the resignation of Watkins' executive assistant in July. Watkins' new Chief of Staff Jim Joice termed any rumors regarding the reason for Watkins conduct at Fort Scott, "absurd."
On October 23, 2019, about thirty House Republicans aggressively intruded upon that day's confidential hearing in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) where Republican and Democratic congressional members had been taking testimony from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper. Watkins was in the crowd of Republicans to follow Florida Representative Matt Gaetz to the hearing room. Unlike Kansas Representative Roger Marshall, Watkins has permission to enter the secure room as one of the twenty-one Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "As one of the few Members allowed in Schiff’s secret bunker, I'm proud to support my colleagues who entered the SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility) today in search of transparency and due process amid Schiff's Kangaroo court," said Watkins.  One committee member said, "It was the closest thing I've seen around here to mass civil unrest as a member of Congress." The conservatives barged into the hearing room with prohibited electronics devices. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson wrote to the House Sergeant-at-Arms about Jordan and others, requesting that he take action regarding their "unprecedented breach of security". South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham admonished his House colleagues for their tactic, calling them "nuts" for having made a "run on the SCIF". In the 116th Congress, the chair, Schiff, and 12 Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee were appointed by the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who is a committee member ex officio. The House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, also an ex officio member, appointed the ranking member, Devin Nunes, and eight other Republicans to the committee. Each side gets equal time to question witnesses appearing before the committee. The disruption delayed Cooper's testimony by many hours.
Allegations of sexual misconduct
In October 2018, Chelsea Scarlett, an Alaska resident who had worked on the same military base as Watkins, accused Watkins of making unwanted sexual advances. Scarlett said she did not file a complaint at the time of the incident in 2006 for fear of losing her job. Watkins denied the allegations with the response: "These charges are so preposterous they don't deserve the dignity of a response or publication, but Republicans face this kind of assault from the media every day."
Residence in Kansas
Watkins's residence in Kansas is disputed, due to his supposed residence in Alaska. He has applied for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend 11 times, a payment to those who say they plan to live in the state indefinitely, and have maintained residence for one year. Further, an open letter signed by local GOP leaders expressing concern regarding absence from his district was made public days before the 7-way primary.
Watkins attempted to erase references to some stories about his behavior from his Wikipedia article, as shown in its edit history. He made at least six edits in November 2018. A subject line regarding one change read "I am Steve Watkins. My lawyers and I edited this page because it was heavily biased". Jim Joice, Watkins' chief of staff who was previously a Republican party official and staffer, further edited the article on five occasions in December 2018 and January 2019.
Allegations of voter fraud
In December 2019, Watkins was accused of voter fraud and election perjury, after the Topeka address he listed as his place of residency on his voter registration turned out to be a UPS Store. On December 4, Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay stated that he directed county sheriff Brian Hill to investigate whether Watkins had broken state law; Kagay and Hill are both Republicans. According to State Rep. Blake Carpenter (R-Derby), "Unless I’m mistaken, no one can live at a UPS store. It cannot be a place of residence. This person undoubtedly voted in an election in November for candidates that he had no constitutional right to vote for. This is wrong and illegal. No one should be above the law."
Watkins' chief of staff deflected criticism by portraying the issue as an overreaction to a simple mistake: "He just filed it incorrectly. I think that’s a little ludicrous."
On July 14, 2020, Watkins was charged by Mike Kagay, District Attorney of Shawnee County, Kansas, with “interference with law enforcement, providing false information; voting without being qualified; unlawful advance voting; and failing to notify the DMV of change of address” Asked about the charges, Watkins said they were "very suspicious" and said he looked forward to clearing his name. "This is clearly hyper-political. It comes out moments before our first debate and three weeks before the election. I haven't done anything wrong." Watkins' campaign spokesperson, Brian Piligra, said, "Give us a break. 30 minutes before the first televised debate and the day before early voting starts, the DA -- who shares a political consultant with our primary opponent Jake LaTurner -- files these bogus charges. They couldn't have been more political if they tried." "Just like President Trump, Steve is being politically prosecuted by his opponents who can't accept the results of the last election. Kansans and Americans are tired of these kinds of silly games. This is a desperate political attack by a desperate political campaign on its dying breath, down twenty points."
Between October 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, Watkins spent $400,000 in taxpayer-funded radio ads and mailed communications to his constituents. That compares to $33,000 spent on franking in the same period by Democratic Representative Sharice Davids in the adjacent Third Congressional District, and the other two Kansas Republican congressmen, $75,000 for Roger Marshall, and $100,000 for Ron Estes in the same period. The total does not include costs of radio spots which have run frequently in the second quarter of 2020. On August 4, 2020 Embattled Kansas congressman Steve Watkins is ousted by primary challenger Jake LaTurner
Watkins is married to Fong Liu, an obstetrician gynecologist.
|Republican||Vernon J. Fields||1,987||2.6|
|Republican||Steve Watkins (incumbent)||31,934||34.1%|
- Interview with Musher Steve Watkins, Eanes Innovative School District, K. Coffield, 2015. Retrieved November 30, 2018.
- Davis, Watkins debate reveals immigration, health care differences, Topeka Capital Journal, Tim Carpenter, October 3, 2018. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
- Steven Watkins, Jr.'s Biography, Vote Smart. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
- Kansas congressional candidate who ran the Iditarod is having his honesty challenged, Anchorage Daily News, Roxana Hegeman and John Hanna (AP), October 2, 2018. Retrieved October 3, 2018.
- Iditarod race 2015, Iditarod Race Committee. Retrieved August 26, 2019.
- Iditarod course map, Iditarod Race Committee. Retrieved August 26, 2019.
- Topeka doctor spending $100K to get son Steve Watkins elected to Congress, Capital Journal, Associated Press, July 3, 2018. Retrieved October 3, 2018.
- Kansans Can Do Anything PAC Independent Expenditures 2018 cycle, Federal Elections Commission (FEC), Retrieved November 27, 2018.
- Watkins has voting history criticized, picks up Rep. Marshall's endorsement, WIBW, Nick Viviani (AP), July 31, 2018. Retrieved October 3, 2018.
- Trump/Pence 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale shared a special message with Kansas Republicans: Please don’t vote for Steve Watkins, Washington Post, Dave Weigel, August 7, 2018. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
- U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins of Kansas forgives $225,100 loan to his 2018 campaign, Kansas City Star, Lindsay Wise, May 2, 2019. Retrieved April 3, 2019.
- "Adam Laxalt adds name to lawsuit concerning top GOP donors". Las Vegas Review-Journal. June 25, 2018. Retrieved March 8, 2020.
- "Laxalt joined Koch brothers, his campaign allies, in bid to block ExxonMobil fraud probe". Reno Gazette Journal. Retrieved March 8, 2020.
- Watkins’ father says FEC probing 2018 donations as Kansas congressman’s legal woes grow, Kansas City Star, Bryan Lowry and Jonathan Shorman, March 6, 2020. Retrieved March 7, 2020.
- Nepal: 'Earthquake?' 'You are still having altitude sickness', New Zealand Herald, May 4, 2015. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
- GOP candidate Watkins told voters he owned a company he built from scratch. He didn’t., Kansas City Star, Lindsay Wise, Kevin G. Hall & Hunter Woodall, September 26, 2018. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
- Lowry, Bryan; Woodall, Hunter (October 4, 2018). "'We're just talking two years.' GOP officials grapple with doubts about Watkins". McClatchy DC. Retrieved October 6, 2018.
- Doblin, Jim (October 2, 2018). "Update : Watkins challenges AP report about his accomplishments". KSNT. Retrieved October 6, 2018.
- David Catanese (September 28, 2018). "Why It's Getting Ugly in Kansas". usnews.com.
- The New York Times Upshot / Siena College Kansas 02 Poll, New York Times, September 21, 2018. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
- Woodall, Hunter (October 3, 2018). "'I want to keep our culture,' GOP candidate says as he calls for Trump's wall". kansascity. Retrieved October 6, 2018.
- Trump's funniest line in Topeka, Cowley Courier Traveler, October 10, 2018.
- GOP newcomer Steve Watkins bucks polls to keep Kansas’ 2nd District red, Kansas City Star, Steve Vockrodt & Eric Adler, November 6, 2018. Retrieved November 7, 2018.
- Ex-Kansas Governor Seeks Primary Challenger For Rep. Watkins, KMUW, Associated Press, August 28, 2019. Retrieved August 31, 2019.
- LaTurner hires former Watkins’ campaign manager in 2020 race Associated Press, September 11, 2019. Retrieved September 15, 2019.
- "Whole thing is a sham." Kansas and Missouri Republicans storm impeachment inquiry, Kansas City Star, Bryan Lowry, October 23, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- LaTurner beats Watkins to take on De La Isla for congress, KSNT, Mark Feuerborn and Tiffany Littler, August 4, 2020. Retrieved August 5, 2020.
- Steve Watkins campaigned as an outsider. As a congressman, he’s hiring DC insiders, Kansas City Star, Bryan Lowry, January 14, 2019. Retrieved March 9, 2020.
- Watkins speaks in Topeka as part of his town hall tour, WIBW, Shawn Wheat, July 30, 2019. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
- U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins’ town hall triggers debate on gun violence, Capital Journal, Tim Carpenter, August 26, 2019. Retrieved September 16, 2019.
- Steve Watkins ducks reporters' questions amid speculation that he could resign, Capital Journal, Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith, August 22, 2019. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
- Kansas Rep. Watkins knocks down resignation rumors; aide hits ‘whisper campaign’, Kansas City Star, Bryan Lowry and Jonathan Shorman, August 23, 2019. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
- Protesters share anxiety about Rep Steve Watkins "No" vote on Domestic Violence bill, Capital Journal, September 10, 2019. Retrieved March 9, 2020.
- Kansas Congressman Steve Watkins shakes up staff after less than a year in office, Kansas City Star, Bryan Lowry, July 26, 2019. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
- Reps. Mo Brooks, Bradley Byrne at forefront of GOP charge into impeachment room, AL.com, Paul Gattis, October 23, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Chaotic scene as Republicans disrupt impeachment deposition, Washington Post, Michael Balsamo and Mary Clare Jalonick (Associated Press), October 24, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Total SCIF Show: The GOP's Raid Puts National Security at Risk, Wired.com, Brian Barrett, October 23, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Jim Jordan defends GOP lawmakers who stormed impeachment inquiry room, Fox News, Charles Creitz, October 24, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Chaotic scene as Republicans disrupt impeachment deposition, AL.com, October 24, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- House Floor Activities, January 3, 2019. Retrieved October 26, 2019.
- House Floor Activities, January 16, 2019. Retrieved October 26, 2019.
- After Republicans storm hearing room, Defense official testifies in impeachment inquiry, CNN, Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb, October 23, 2019. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Sherman Smith. "Steve Watkins, GOP candidate for Congress, confronts allegations of sexual misconduct - News - The Topeka Capital-Journal - Topeka, KS". Cjonline.com. Retrieved December 6, 2018.
- Woodall, Hunter (October 27, 2018). "Watkins and GOP denounce allegations of sexual advances | The Kansas City Star". Kansascity.com. Retrieved December 6, 2018.
- Brown, Alex (October 29, 2018). "Watkins Faces Allegations of Sexual Misconduct, Infidelity". Nationaljournal.com. Retrieved December 6, 2018.
- Hegeman, Roxana. "Kansas congressional candidate who ran the Iditarod is having his honesty challenged". Anchorage Daily News. Anchorage Daily News. Retrieved October 2, 2018.
- Kansas GOP Congressman faces probe of voter registration, Washington Post, December 4, 2019. Retrieved March 9, 2020.
- Carpenter, Tim (December 4, 2019). "U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins tangled in voter fraud, perjury allegations for listing UPS store as residence". The Topeka Capital-Journal.
- Brunner, Melissa (July 14, 2020). "DA charges Watkins with voter fraud". WIBW. Retrieved July 14, 2020.
- Kansas congressman faces felony charges related to 2019 local election, CNN, Paul LeBlanc,, July 14, 2020. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
- Kansas Rep. Watkins rings up $400,000 in taxpayer-funded communications in six months, Capital Journal, Tim Carpenter, June 20, 2020. Retrieved June 28, 2020.
- Kansas Rep. Watkins just updated his voter registration. He may have to do it again, Kansas City Star, Bryan Lowry and Jonathan Shorman, December 13, 2019. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
- Biography at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
- Profile at Vote Smart
- Financial information (federal office) at the Federal Election Commission
- Legislation sponsored at the Library of Congress
|U.S. House of Representatives|
| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kansas's 2nd congressional district
|U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)|
| United States Representatives by seniority
|116th||Senate: P. Roberts • J. Moran||House: R. Marshall • R. Estes • S. Davids • S. Watkins|