After touting himself as a political outsider during last fall’s campaign, Rep. Steve Watkins has surrounded himself with veteran political insiders and people with deep roots in Kansas’ Republican Party in the early stages of his term in Congress.
Watkins’ new hires collectively have more than 30 years of congressional experience. They include Colin Brainard, a former chief of staff for Rep. Lynn Jenkins, to run the office, and Jim Joice, a former aide to Rep. Kevin Yoder and Kansas Republican Party official, as communications director.
Watkins, who never previously held elected office, is now defining himself as a pragmatic conservative, The Kansas City Star reported.
“It’s important that a leader realizes he doesn’t have all the answers,” he said. “He needs to be smart enough to know there are things he doesn’t know.”
Some Republicans were unimpressed by Watkins during the campaign because he met with Democratic officials before running as a Republican. And he won a seven-person primary with 26 percent of the vote after his father gave $765,000 to a super PAC to help his campaign.
“I think people notice the hires he’s making, the efforts he’s making to learn from people with more experience,” said Jeff King, a former Kansas Senate vice president who previously voiced skepticism about Watkins.
Kris Marple, a former Wilson County GOP chairman, said during the campaign that Watkins could be replaced in two years if he didn’t live up to his campaign promises.
“My feelings haven’t changed,” said Marple. “I’m still willing to give him a term. . Any newcomer who hasn’t held public office, they got to have one term (for voters) to know their voting record and if what they campaigned on is what they stand for.”
Watkins’ staff is made up mostly of former Jenkins staffers. He also joined the Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which includes members of both parties and has policy goals of balancing the budget and protecting Medicare and Social Security.
Watkins has also met with fellow Kansas freshman Rep. Sharice Davids, the lone Democrat in the Kansas delegation, to discuss some areas where they can collaborate.
The first bill that Watkins is co-sponsoring would block federal dollars for Planned Parenthood, a longtime goal of conservative Republicans.
Kansans for Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion organization, endorsed Watkins after his primary win but made clear he needed to establish an anti-abortion voting record to count on its support in future elections.
Mark Kahrs, Kansas’ Republican national committeeman, said Watkins won’t have much chance to get legislation passed as a freshman Republican in the Democratic-led House. But he will have opportunities to establish his conservative credentials by voting “no” on bills authored by Democrats, Kahrs said.
“I do think he’s consolidating support,” Kahrs said. “I anticipate he will be a center-right congressman in the mold of Lynn Jenkins.”