The case emerged after an investigation of a Topeka Capital-Journal report from December, which stated that Watkins may have committed felony voter fraud by allegedly misstating his address on a voter change-of-residency form, an application for a mail ballot and another official document. A fourth charge, described as an “unclassified misdemeanor,” claimed Watkins failed to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of a change of address.
With just three weeks until his primary, Watkins shrugged off the announcement Tuesday, calling the errors an innocent mistake and saying he looks forward to “setting the record straight.”
“This is clearly hyper-political,” he said during a televised debate that began shortly after news broke about the charges. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Watkins is set to face the state’s treasurer, Jake LaTurner, a candidate recruited by Republican officials, in a competitive race on Aug. 4.
“This is a key issue in this election,” LaTurner said at the debate. “We need to put our best foot forward. Clearly, our current congressman — with three felony charges and a misdemeanor charge — is not the person to do that.”
Watkins’s path to Congress was rocky, with Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale writing a pre-election op-ed warning voters not to choose him. A Harvard- and West Point-educated Army veteran who had never sought office before, Watkins was boosted by a super PAC largely funded by his father, a physician in Topeka. The candidate’s own ties to the district were tenuous, and rivals pointed out that he had never voted there in a partisan election there.
The general election brought more controversy. An Associated Press investigation revealed that he had falsely claimed to lead and grow a small business, and inflated a story about heroism during a climb of Mt. Everest. While President Trump had carried the 2nd District by 19 points in 2016, Watkins would win the race against Democrat Paul Davis by less than 3,000 votes two years later.
“We’re just talking two years,” a local GOP county chair told McClatchy shortly before the midterms. “If we come to find out that stuff’s true and he’s really not what he says he is, we’ll replace him in two years, I guess.”
At Tuesday’s debate, Watkins said that as soon as he realized he listed his mailing address instead of his physical address on the voting forms, “We fixed it.”
“We’ve cooperated with the DA completely. I haven’t seen the charges. I simply know that I look forward to clearing my name,” he said.
Kagay said the investigation into Watkins’s actions by the county sheriff’s office, which he requested after “news of the alleged conduct was brought to his attention in December,” was “delayed significantly due to the COVID-19 shutdown.”