Acquaintances of Kansas congressional candidate Steve Watkins accused the Republican nominee of being unfaithful to his wife while claiming to be in an “open” marriage, and of instigating alleged sexual misconduct while a resident of Alaska.
Allegations emerged after the 2nd District began casting advance ballots but less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 election. Polling indicates the race between Watkins and Democrat Paul Davis is a tossup.
Watkins’ campaign declined to grant an interview with the candidate, but responded to written questions by denouncing the people who criticized him and assigning partisan motivation for the claims. A Watkins campaign aide also hinted at retaliation for publishing a story on Watkins’ personal life.
“Another day, another round of second-hand, third-hand and anonymous ‘sources’ pushing Brett Kavanaugh-style destruction politics -- this time, conveniently days before Election Day,” Watkins said, referring to controversy about President Donald Trump’s latest nominee to U.S. Supreme Court.
“These charges are so preposterous they don’t deserve the dignity of a response or publication, but Republicans face this kind of assault from the media every day,” Watkins said.
Watkins’ wife, Fong Liu, said in a statement to The Topeka Capital-Journal that she believed Watkins was faithful to her, but neither commented on the open-marriage allegation.
Watkins, a U.S. Army veteran and former Alaska resident who never previously sought public office, said Democrats and their allies would “stop at nothing to halt our agenda and put liberals like Paul Davis in office regardless of whose lives they destroy.”
A major thrust of Watkins’ campaign has been a pledge to rely on Kansas values, Christian faith and military leadership skills to transform the political culture in Washington, D.C. In many campaign appearances, he has shared some version of this: “I’m a Christian. I’m a family man. I’m a patriot. And I’d love to serve you and never let you down.”
In a series of interviews, sources said Watkins confided to people in Topeka that his wife, a Boston physician, was tolerant of philandering as long as Watkins didn’t share details with Liu.
Topeka resident Ellen Backus, who first became aware of Watkins while attending Topeka public schools and socialized with him over the years as an adult, said she attended a party with Watkins in October 2017 that illustrated the open-marriage dynamic. A woman who cuddled with Watkins at the party told Backus he was engaged but that Liu “understood what it was like to be in a long-distance relationship” and tolerated his affairs.
In the months before that party, social media posts celebrated the engagement of Liu and Watkins, who announced his campaign for Congress in November. The couple married in May.
“He doesn’t respect the women he dates. He doesn’t respect the women he sleeps with,” Backus said. “He collects women and relationships because it feels good for him to have this much praise.”
Backus said Watkins could be likable and charming in social settings, but the assertion of personal virtue by Watkins during the congressional campaign conflicted with her knowledge of his conduct. Backus said she never had been romantically involved with Watkins.
She said it was difficult not to find hypocrisy in television attack ads by a super PAC designed to bolster Watkins’ candidacy by asserting Davis had a “strong history” with a strip club in Coffeyville.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the leading U.S. House Republican super PAC, has invested about $2 million in commercials critical of Davis. Much of the airtime has been devoted to Davis’ presence in 1998 at the “Secrets” club, where the owner was a client of his law firm. While Davis was in a dark room with a nearly naked woman, according to The Associated Press, law enforcement raided the business looking for illegal drugs.
Davis did nothing illegal, but supporters of Gov. Sam Brownback, who defeated Davis in the 2014 governor’s race, dug up paperwork on the raid and Brownback used it to tarnish Davis’ reputation. The flurry of CLF ads have attempted to do the same.
Backus, who has volunteered for the Davis campaign, said Watkins’ behavior with women didn’t mirror claims of religious faith and family values attributed to the Republican nominee during the campaign.
“He’s out of control,” Backus said. “I don’t believe he represents anything but his self-interest.”
She also said Watkins confided he would move to Washington if elected to Congress and to Massachusetts if he lost. His wife is on the staff of a medical center in Boston.
In a statement, Watkins’ wife said opponents of Republicans were attempting to victimize her husband in the manner in which Kavanaugh was denounced by women and others before he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“They manufacture stories and with the media as their willing accomplices will do anything in their power to stop Republicans,” Liu said. “These types of anonymous, second-hand attacks are why good people don’t go into politics. But they hurt, too. Steve is a loyal, dedicated husband and I’m proud he won’t be intimidated and will stand strong for Kansas in Congress.”
Christopher Grant, a campaign strategist for Watkins, said he was confident the Watkins family could take necessary steps to reclaim the candidate’s reputation if it were tarnished. Steve Watkins’ father established and financed a political action committee that invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign ads on his son’s behalf.
“I just want you to understand the Watkins family has the resources to do whatever they need to do to clear the family name,” Grant said.
Tim Shaffer, assistant director of the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University and co-editor of an upcoming book on the subject of civility in politics, said a legitimate argument could be made for exploring whether statements by candidates about values and principles were in conflict with the experiences of people who had known that candidate.
He said the reporting of alleged misconduct by a candidate and the timing of those articles in the course of a campaign were noteworthy. However, he said, the degree to which most people respond to published claims would likely depend on partisan preference.
“People are strongly concerned about party affiliation with a team mentality rather than issues,” Shaffer said.
In his primary election victory speech in August after defeating six other GOP candidates, Watkins praised his wife and referred to her as “my rock.” In a campaign forum this month in Independence, he said she was his “best friend.”
Chelsea Scarlett, a resident of Wasilla, Alaska, said she was in a room with Watkins 12 years ago when he locked the door, put his hands on her and made unwanted sexual advances. She said it occurred while she was employed as a contractor at Fort Richardson in Alaska.
Scarlett, who claimed no political party on her voter registration in Alaska and hadn’t made state or federal campaign contributions, said she didn’t file a complaint against Watkins because she was worried about getting fired from her job. She was working at the same fort where Watkins was stationed while rising to the rank of captain in the U.S. Army. Watkins continued to reside in the area while employed as a private contractor.
Scarlett said she was disgusted that Watkins sought election to the congressional seat being vacated by retirement of U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Republican completing her fifth term in January.
Scarlett described Watkins as a “predator” and expressed apprehension that, if sent by Kansas voters to serve a two-year term in Washington, he would “do things to young girls in those offices because they’re cute and vulnerable.”
“If I was one of those people on the fence saying, ‘I’m really not sure,’ I can tell you there’s a girl in Alaska who knows,” Scarlett said. “I’m concerned this is the guy who’s going to represent you.”
Watkins, who graduated from the military academy at West Point, has been endorsed by President Donald Trump, former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., the National Rifle Association, Kansans for Life PAC, Kansas Livestock Association, National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the With Honor PAC.
“I’m running to bring Kansas values and military leadership to Congress,” Watkins said during the campaign. “There’s one thing I learned as a cadet at West Point -- it was discipline. I promise to stay accountable to those lessons if elected.”
Vice President Mike Pence, in a fundraising event for Watkins in Topeka, picked up on that narrative. Pence urged the crowd to inform others about Watkins’ compelling life story of service to the nation and “tell somebody about his character.”
However, criticism of Watkins among Republicans emerged during the primary campaign, when 40 local GOP officials in the 2nd District signed a letter that accused Watkins of not being a true Kansas Republican.
Former state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican and retired U.S. Army officer who lost the GOP 2nd District primary, said in advance of the August vote that Watkins was a political outsider without a political pedigree in Kansas.
“When he says he doesn’t have a record, he’s right. When he says he’s an outsider, oh yeah. What has he ever done that would give you an indication he’s a Republican?” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think ‘impostor’ is too strong of a word. I don’t see the bona fides. I don’t see anything to indicate he was a Republican prior to filing for this office.”
Watkins also was challenged by Republicans and Democrats for not voting as an adult until the 2017 city election in Topeka and for owning homes in Alaska but not in Kansas. He was pummeled by GOP primary opponents for saying he was a “pro-choice Christian,” a phrase Watkins said was a slip of the tongue. He said he is solidly pro-life.
Kansas Democrats said they met with Watkins about him possibly running for Congress as a Democrat, but Watkins said he took the meeting to get a better sense of the Kansas political landscape and was a Republican at heart.
Watkins also has been criticized for inaccurately claiming to have owned or started a private contracting company that operated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Watkins said he may have misspoken a few times on that subject, but maintained he grew the private contracting entity owned by Versar from a handful of employees to several hundred.