Congressman Charged With Felonies Already in Primary Trouble (1)

(Adds details from Tuesday night debate in Kansas starting in the sixth paragraph. An earlier version corrected the name of the group airing an ad in Massachusetts.)

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The voter fraud charges announced Tuesday against Rep. Steve Watkins came three weeks before the Kansas primaries and further endangered the already vulnerable freshman Republican.

He’s one of a few House incumbents in primary peril this summer who hope to avoid joining the four who have already lost. Rep. Scott Tipton’s (R-Colo.) defeat on June 30 followed those of Reps. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), Steve King (R-Iowa) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.).

Next on the list could be Watkins, who was charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor by the Shawnee County district attorney for allegedly illegally voting in a municipal election.

As the political fates of New York Democrats Eliot Engeland Carolyn Maloney remain unknown after weeks of vote counting, Watkins and Reps. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) and Richard Neal (D-Mass.) face the stiffest challenges over the remainder of primary season.

Clay and Neal are being challenged by candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats, the progressive political action committee that backed Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). Strategists said they’re likely not as in danger as Watkins, who faces a well-financed statewide-elected official and, now, serious legal issues.

Watkins at Risk

They were the first topic in a Tuesday night debate, which took place shortly after the charges were announced. Watkins stated he’d done nothing wrong, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

State Treasurer Jake LaTurner, who dropped out of the crowded Senate race to challenge Watkins at the urging of former Gov. Jeff Colyer, said the charges make clear Watkins isn’t up to the task of a competitive general election.

In 2018, Watkins nearly lost in the general election for the open seat. The freshman won a plurality in that year’s primary and then defeated Paul Davis (D) by less than a percentage point. President Donald Trump carried the district, which includes Topeka and the eastern area of the state, by nearly 20 points in 2016.

Watkins was criticized throughout his 2018 bid for questions about his Kansas residency and his actions during an earthquake while scaling Mount Everest in 2015. Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Watkins “severely underperformed” in the district for a Republican.

“Watkins is someone who has controversies and flaws, he’s been publicly dishonest about his record, and he has a penchant for committing gaffes,” Miller said. “He does things that most seasoned politicians wouldn’t do to wound themselves.”

Before the felony charges Tuesday, LaTurner had hit Watkins on the questions about Watkins’ residency, showing in one ad the UPS Store that Watkins used as his address for voter registration and noting the two homes Watkins owns in Alaska.

Miller said LaTurner hasn’t “gone for the jugular” on Watkins’ controversies, and Watkins’ strong support of Trump has helped him keep the primary competitive.

Generational Challenge

In Massachusetts’ 1st District, 30-year-old Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is taking on Neal, a 30-year incumbent and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. They’ll face off on Sept. 1.

Endorsed by Justice Democrats, Morse, who was first elected mayor at 22, attacked Neal for not supporting Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, as well as for taking corporate PAC money. The progressive political advocacy group Fight Corporate Monopolies released an ad saying Neal has “sided with greedy corporations.”

Morse is also backed by the Sunrise Movement, which endorsed Jamaal Bowman against Engel, and by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s group Humanity First.

Still, Neal had $4.5 million in cash available, compared to Morse’s $139,000. Neal has aired five ads while Morse has focused on social media. Democratic campaign strategist Ian Russell said Neal spending money and actively campaigning in this primary sets him apart from other incumbents who failed to get their nominations.

“He’s delivered for the district, he’s where the district is in terms of policies, and he’s taken this campaign seriously,” Russell said. “He’s really flexing his muscle.”

Massachusetts Democratic political strategist Scott Ferson said that as opposed to Pressley’s win over 20-year incumbent Michael Capuano in 2018, Neal reflects his district.

Capuano was the last White representative of a majority-minority district in Massachusetts. The 1st, which includes the more rural western part of the state, is not as diverse, Ferson said.

“The very, very progressive pockets, which at least make it diverse politically, are now in the 2nd District,” Ferson said. “It’s just not the same.”

In another generational primary battle in the state, Sen. Ed Markey (D) is fending off Rep. Joe Kennedy III. Russell said that race could be close, as the progressive vote is going to Markey but the Kennedy name “still has power.”

The Rematch

The Aug. 4 fight for the Democratic nomination in Missouri’s 1st District is a rematch between Clay and Cori Bush, a nurse and community activist.

The 10-term incumbent beat Bush in 2018 by 20 points. Justice Democrats also supported Bush in 2018, and she campaigned with Ocasio-Cortez.

Like Morse, Bush is endorsed by progressive groups including the Sunrise Movement and Our Revolution. Russell said to successfully take on an incumbent like Clay, though, challengers need to have strong issue-related attacks, such as Marie Newman’s successful campaign against Lipinski and his opposition to abortion rights.

Bush has campaigned on her support for Black Lives Matter, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

“You need the resources to go after an incumbent, but you also need a narrative,” Russell said. “It’s really tough to do in a political structure like in St. Louis where incumbency is generally very much favored.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Samantha Handler in Washington at shandler@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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