TOPEKA — The Republican primary in the 2nd District of Kansas took on new meaning Wednesday with State Treasurer Jake LaTurner’s decision to bail from a U.S. Senate campaign to challenge first-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins for an eastern Kansas seat in Congress.

LaTurner was urged by prominent GOP political leaders to exit the crowded field seeking the Republican nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and to invest in thwarting re-election of Watkins, who has been dogged by personal controversy since the 2018 campaign.

“We care deeply about the Second District, our great state and the future of this country,” LaTurner said. “Second District residents deserve a solid conservative fighter they can count on.”

He said he was appalled by the work of Democrats in Washington, D.C., and viewed the 2020 election as “a critical one for our state and nation.”

“We must nominate a Republican that can win the general election and fight for our conservative principles,” LaTurner said.

There has been recent speculation Watkins might resign from office, but the congressman has dismissed such talk by denouncing rumors of a relationship with a former intern on his U.S. House staff.

In an interview Wednesday with the Morning Sun, LaTurner addressed recent criticisms from Watkins regarding his voting record.

“He’s absolutely misconstruing the truth,” LaTurner said of Watkins. “Those votes were to make certain that Kansas citizens have the right to vote on property tax increases, because property taxes are breaking the backs of people, and to preserve the income tax cuts, which is the conservative position. The votes that I made were the conservative position in the legislature.”

LaTurner also offered some criticisms of his own of Watkins.

“I don’t take much stock in criticisms from a guy who either talked to the Democrats about running for Congress as a Democrat before he ran as a Republican, or a guy that totally lied about creating a business with hundreds of employees and the CEO of the business never heard of the guy,” LaTurner said. LaTurner was apparently referring to Watkins’s claims about his involvement with the company VIAP Inc.

LaTurner, who was born and raised in Galena and graduated from Pittsburg State University, also spoke to the Morning Sun about his Southeast Kansas roots.

“Southeast Kansas has been home to me and my family for six generations. I represented the Pittsburg area in the state senate and I’ve been proud to represent that area as state treasurer,” LaTurner said.

“Southeast Kansas is home and always will be home, and I will make sure our voice is heard in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

LaTurner said he is committed to serving Southeast Kansas in the House, and will not use the position as a stepping stone to the Senate if elected.

“This was a tough decision to make, but I’ve made it, and I am running to serve in the House, period,” he said.

LaTurner also said he is confident he can beat Watkins in the GOP primary and win in the general election.

“We’re going to work hard,” he said. “There is no one that is going to out-work us in this race. We have a two-to-one fundraising advantage over Congressman Watkins and we are going to continue to make sure we have the resources to get our message out there.”

LaTurner said one of his priorities is to enact term limits at the federal level “because I don’t think you can hope to change the system by sending the same exact people there time and time again.”

Asked whether he would commit to a personal term limit that he would adhere to regardless of legislation being passed that would apply to all members of Congress, however, LaTurner said he would not.

“What I’m saying is that I’m going to co-sponsor a constitutional amendment for term limits and do my very best to get it passed in the House and in the Senate so that we can hopefully, at the end of the process, amend the Constitution,” he said. “Until that happens, with the seniority system that exists today, you are disadvantaging your district and your state in a major way by making a statement like that, so I’m not doing that, what I’m saying is is that whether voters support me or support someone else, for this office or for another federal office, they need to make this a central issue in the campaign and make it a central requirement for someone to earn their support.”

Bryan Piligra, a spokesman for Watkins, said the contrast between LaTurner and Watkins would be evident to eastern Kansas voters.

“A life of service versus a life of self-service,” Piligra said. “Congressman Watkins is a war veteran, engineer and conservative leader who votes in support of our president 93% of the time.”

He criticized LaTurner’s votes while a member of the Kansas Senate that increased the state sales tax rate from 5.7% to 6.3%. Both pieces of legislation were championed by then-Gov. Sam Brownback and other Republicans in response to revenue declines triggered by aggressive cuts in individual income tax rates and an exemption given more than 300,000 business owners.

Piligra also said LaTurner’s career was about climbing the political ladder and “that climb ends in August.”

LaTurner, a former state senator from southeast Kansas, was appointed state treasurer by former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in 2017. LaTurner was elected to that post in 2018. He announced intention to run for U.S. Senate in January.

Last week, Republican Jeff Colyer, who replaced Brownback as governor, urged LaTurner to move over to the 2nd District contest. Colyer said Watkins was unlikely to win election to a second term in Congress.

Crawford County Republican Party Chairman Justin Crain released a brief statement Wednesday about LaTurner’s decision to enter the primary race.

“Today’s announcement will give Crawford County voters the opportunity to cast their vote supporting Southeast Kansas values in the primary next August,” Crain said in his statement.

— Jonathan Riley, Pittsburg Morning Sun, contributed to this report.