Vice President Mike Pence campaigned in Topeka on Friday to endorse 2nd District congressional candidate Steve Watkins while building enthusiasm and extracting contributions from influential donors to help Republicans retain control of the U.S. House.
The vice president rolled through Kansas in the wake of an appearance in Topeka by President Donald Trump, who likewise praised Watkins' military service and the candidate's promise to fully embrace the president's agenda.
"I'm here for one reason and one reason only," Pence told nearly 200 people at the Topeka rally. "Kansas and America needs Steve Watkins in the Congress of the United States of America.
"The truth of the matter is, if he was unopposed, I'd still be here campaigning for him."
The campaign of Democratic nominee Paul Davis responded by releasing a pair of television ads designed to shine a light on Davis' record in the Kansas Legislature and to undermine voter confidence that Watkins had been truthful about his past.
Pence said voting in the 2nd District would help determine whether the GOP preserved a grip on Congress and continued to support implementation of Trump policies. He said Democrats were aware the path to taking over the House ran through Kansas, referring to the competitive 2nd and 3rd district contests.
Pence ripped into Davis for voting two dozen times in the Kansas House to raise taxes and assured the crowd Davis would do the same in Washington, D.C. Pence said Davis was a supporter of abortion rights and could assist U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in voting for House speaker. Davis has said he wouldn't support Pelosi.
"Paul Davis -- a record in liberalism. A record in public life, a long history, of literally putting liberal Democratic policies first," the vice president said.
The Davis campaign responded to Pence by releasing an advertisement focusing on Davis' work as a "fiscally responsible, bipartisan lawmaker" who voted more than 150 times to lower Kansas taxes.
The campaign simultaneously dropped a commercial designed to amplify questions about whether Watkins exaggerated his record in private business and as a mountain climber. Watkins did back away from claims that he created a company that later employed hundreds of people. He said he didn't start the company but helped it grow. In addition, controversy exists about Watkins' role following an avalanche on Mount Everest.
The second Davis commercial features a member of the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police saying Watkins' history of "lying, trying to fabricate a past" would disqualify him from service as a police officer.
"In law enforcement, we get lied to a lot and we can tell when we're being lied to," John Culver, a 13-year veteran of law enforcement, said in the ad. "Kansans should be very suspicious of Steve Watkins."
Davis, Watkins and Libertarian Kelly Standley will be on the Nov. 6 ballot in the 2nd District, which contains Topeka and Lawrence while extending from Nebraska to Oklahoma. The seat will be vacated with the retirement of U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins. Several of Jenkins' former staff members work on the Watkins campaign.
At the Topeka rally, Watkins said endorsements from Trump and Pence in his first campaign for public office were "surreal." Watkins, who attended public school in Topeka, praised his parents in remarks to the crowd.
"They taught me values. Values I call heartland values," Watkins said. "We're going to do everything we can to keep Kansas' 2nd District red."
Watkins, who established residency in Topeka and registered as a Republican in September 2017, prevailed in a seven-person Republican primary election in August by securing 27 percent of the vote. That race was dominated by television advertising on Watkins' behalf that was paid for by Kansans Can Do Anything, the family's PAC.
The general election in the 2nd District has been colored by millions of dollars in attack ads paid for by political action committees, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is led by Republican leadership in the U.S. House and invested in Watkins. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has backed Davis.