Kansas Congressman Steve Watkins, narrowly elected in 2018 with President Donald Trump’s blessing and by pledging to help "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C., responded to a Republican primary challenge with a $400,000 onslaught of taxpayer-funded communications during a six-month period, a new federal report shows.
Watkins, who is running against State Treasurer Jake LaTurner in the Aug. 4 primary in the 2nd District, spent nearly twice the combined franking total of his three Kansas congressional peers. Franking expenditures are allowed to assist House and Senate members sharing information with constituents. Some House franking rules were loosened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watkins’ congressional office allocated at least $400,000 for printing and mailing of correspondence, as well as for online and broadcast messaging from Oct. 1 to March 31. The total doesn’t include his franking expenditures during April, May and June, including a new round of government-paid radio spots airing on KMBZ-AM radio in the Kansas City market and on KMAJ-AM in Topeka.
Quarterly financial reports submitted to the U.S. House’s administration committee show U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, the 3rd District Democrat, spent $33,000 on franking communications during the six-month period. U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, a Republican serving the 4th District, reported he approved $100,000 for franking, while U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, the 1st District Republican, filed reports showing $75,000 in franking costs.
Questions about Watkins’ use of federal tax dollars to reach out to prospective voters added to the list of issues that could influence outcome of the GOP congressional primary. He’s the subject of a Shawnee County criminal investigation of allegations he engaged in election fraud by falsely listing his residential address on voting documents. There is a federal inquiry into campaign contributions to Watkins by his father in 2018.
"He may not know where he lives," said LaTurner campaign spokeswoman Kara Zeyer, "but Steve Watkins certainly seems to know where to find Kansas taxpayers’ checkbooks."
In May, LaTurner called on Watkins to end all taxpayer-funded advertising through his congressional office. He accused Watkins of exploiting a franking loophole created by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to "run political advertisements."
Dylan Jones, Watkins’ congressional spokesman in Washington, has said Watkins prioritized in his office budget the goal of keeping constituents informed. He said that connection was "a vital component to effective representation and leadership."
The franking onslaught by Watkins followed the September announcement by LaTurner, at the encouragement of former Gov. Jeff Colyer, that he would drop out of the U.S. Senate race and seek the GOP nomination in the 2nd District of the U.S. House.
Bryan Piligra, a campaign spokesman for Watkins, said Kansans shouldn’t overlook LaTurner’s decision to feature himself last year in advertising of a college savings program supervised by the state treasurer’s office.
The commercials, financed by the investment company managing the accounts, was unprecedented because it focused exclusively on LaTurner, his wife and their kids. The advertising was criticized as an inappropriate attempt to promote LaTurner’s political career.
"While Jake LaTurner’s campaign has been bankrolled by illegal corporate contributions masquerading as public service announcements," Piligra said, "Congressman Watkins has made sure every tax dollar he’s responsible for has been used to deliver victories for all Kansans."
Zeyer, the LaTurner campaign official, said the Learning Quest promotional commercials starring LaTurner stopped in 2019 to "stay as far away from the election as possible." She said the ads corresponded with an increase in creation of college savings accounts and a surge in contributions to those accounts.
The state treasurer ads have been a perennial controversy for more than a decade, with four holders of that office leaning on the opportunity to be part of Learning Quest marketing. In addition to LaTurner, former state treasurers Lynn Jenkins, Dennis McKinney and Ron Estes appeared on screen in the ads. The commercials were considered useful to Jenkins in her successful campaign for U.S. House in the 2nd District.
PIligra also said Watkins was "a conservative warrior" and that LaTurner was "a tax-raising fraud."
It was a reference to LaTurner’s sponsorship in 2015, while a member of the Kansas Senate, of a property tax reform amendment that secured passage of a bill that raised overall taxes on Kansans. The 2020 Legislature voted to replace the property tax statute, but Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the bill. The Watkins campaign responded by pointing to the tax law as evidence of "Jake ’Lying’ LaTurner."
"It’s unfortunate that Governor Kelly chose to rescue a fellow tax-supporting career politician instead of rescuing Kansans who are struggling to make ends meet during this economic crisis," Piligra said.