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Perhaps The Closest, Roughest U.S. House Race In Kansas Goes Down To The Wire

Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Democrat Paul Davis, left, and Republican Steve Watkins have had a bruising campaign for Congress.

The slugfest for the open Kansas 2nd District Congressional seat remains tight heading into the final days of the campaign.

The latest results from polling by the New York Times and Siena College showed Democrat Paul Davis with a 41 percent to 37 percent lead over Republican Steve Watkins, with 16 percent of voters still undecided.

The survey of 478 voters, conducted from Oct. 27-29, has a margin of error of 4.9 percent, meaning the totals for each candidate could vary by that much in either direction.

A previous NY Times/Siena poll, conducted in mid-September, showed Davis leading Watkins by 1 percentage point, 45 percent to 44 percent, in the district that covers most of the eastern third of the state.

A survey done by Change Research from Oct. 27-29 showed Watkins with a 45 percent to 44 percent lead over Davis.

All the polls tell the same story: the race is too close to call.

That’s despite a seemingly endless series of allegations raised about Watkins’ credibility, dating back to the seven-candidate primary he won with only 26 percent of the vote.

Media reports over the past two months have revealed that Watkins lied about his business background and embellished stories about his exploits as an “adventurer.”

“My opponent has been called a liar, a fraud and a rank opportunist by his fellow Republicans,” Davis said in a recent debate with Watkins. “If Kansans can’t trust you to be honest about your past, how can we trust you with our future?”

Many of Watkins’ primary opponents and GOP officials throughout the 2nd District questioned his credibility in the primary, but most have since endorsed him.

In response to media reports, Watkins acknowledged that he had overstated his role in founding an overseas security company and fabricated a story posted to his campaign website that claimed he had provided “heroic leadership” in response to an earthquake that struck while he was attempting to climb Mount Everest.

But when pressed in the debate by Davis, Watkins backtracked.

“Every single one of those allegations is at very best a half-truth,” he said. “This is why I’m running for Congress. If people don’t like your policy … they go after your character.”

On the issues, Davis has criticized Watkins for advocating the privatization of Social Security and means testing benefits. He’s also questioned how Watkins can support protections for people with pre-existing conditions while calling for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, that prohibits insurers from denying coverage.

“Steve wants to take us back to an era where insurance companies can discriminate against us because we have a pre-existing condition like cancer or diabetes,” Davis said.

Watkins said while he favors repealing Obamacare, “there are aspects that I like.”

A West Point graduate, Watkins contrasts his military background with Davis’ political career, which includes a 12-year stint in the Kansas House and an unsuccessful run for governor in 2014.

“Since graduating from college, (Davis) has spent his whole life as either a politician or a paid lobbyist seeking to make more money and furthering his political career,” Watkins said.

Watkins, who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump, has said his priorities mirror the president’s.

“I’m a build-the-wall guy,” Watkins said, referring to Trump’s top border security priority.

Davis touts endorsements from dozens of current and former Republican elected officials to buttress his claim to be a bipartisan problem solver.

“We have to send problem solvers to Washington,” he said. “People who aren’t afraid to work with the other party. That’s what I did for 12 years in the state Legislature.”

The 2nd District race is one of several across the country that could decide whether Democrats take control of the U.S. House. Because it’s competitive, out-of-state groups are spending millions on television ads, direct mail and get-out-the-vote campaigns.

The TV ads are hard-hitting. One anti-Watkins ad shows him changing into multiple costumes as the announcer says, “Halloween is only once a year, but Steve Watkins has been playing dress-up his entire campaign.”

Another produced by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee resurrects allegations that first surfaced against Davis during his 2014 run for governor. It tells a lurid story of Davis being caught in a strip club during a police drug raid.

“Now we know the real Paul Davis,” a female announcer says over dramatic music. Davis was not arrested or charged in that incident.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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