Editorial: Watkins’ actions, timing of charges suspect

The Editorial Advisory Board
U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins

Questions have followed U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins from the campaign trail to Washington, D.C.

We don’t have the time or inclination to wade through all of the allegations here. Suffice to say that reporters dug into a sometimes-overinflated autobiography, and the stories have continued after the election. Watkins isn’t beloved by Republican insiders, and efforts to push him aside for another Republican candidate — say, state treasurer Jake LaTurner — have been ongoing.

That gives us context for the latest Watkins news eruption: the filing of felony charges against him by Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay. Watkins has been charged with interference with law enforcement, providing false information, voting without being qualified and unlawful advance voting. He also faces a misdemeanor charge for not telling the DMV about an address change.

The legal action stems from one of the earlier Watkins news eruptions: the fact he had registered to vote using a UPS storefront rather than a physical address. Watkins has maintained that using the address was a simple mistake and nothing more.

As satisfying as it may be to see as lightweight a politician as Watkins face the music, the charges do carry more than a whiff of politics. They were announced before a televised debate and the opening of absentee ballots. They came at the exact time that primary elections across the state were heating up.

To be fair to Kagay, Watkins may have slow-rolled providing information to officials, and the COVID-19 pandemic no doubt slowed investigators. But there’s still no question that the charges coming when they did were a godsend to Watkins’ opponents.

Kagay should have considered the timing more carefully. He should have understood that, taking all of the context into account, these charges would be looked at critically.

With all that being said, Watkins does have explaining to do. His Republican Party has focused for years on purported voter fraud (which experts say almost never occurs on a widespread basis).

It’s richly ironic, then, that Watkins is charged with running afoul of voting law. Did he think that one set of rules existed for everyday Kansans and another for himself? Would he support changing the law to increase leniency for “mistakes” of the kind he made?

This won’t be the last time that messy questions and allegations follow Watkins. He seems to have a talent for such entanglements, and these charges will be adjudicated in some form. Primary voters will face the unenviable task of trying to separate the man from the questions.

Watkins better hope that’s possible.