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Kansas congressman's colleague backs GOP foe after charges

FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2019, file photo, U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kan., makes a point during a town hall meeting, in Topeka, Kan. Watkins, a freshman Kansas congressman who had listed a UPS Inc. store as his residence on a voter registration, was criminally charged Tuesday, July 14, 2020, with four crimes, including unlawful voting. (AP Photo/John Hanna, File)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas official who is trying to unseat a freshman congressman who has been charged criminally with election fraud picked up the endorsement Thursday of another member of the state’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Ron Estes said he is endorsing State Treasurer Jake LaTurner over fellow Rep. Steve Watkins, citing the three felony charges and one misdemeanor charge against Watkins. He said Watkins’ eastern Kansas seat will be in danger if he wins the primary.

Watkins’ legal problems stem from his having listed a UPS Inc. postal box as his residence on a state voter registration form.

Estes’ endorsement came a day after Watkins’ attorneys sought to raise doubts about the criminal case. The attorney filed a motion Wednesday night asserting that Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay has a conflict of interest and that the case is politically motivated, The Kansas City Star reports.

The charges against Watkins, whom fellow Republicans are pushing to oust from the eastern Kansas seat he won in 2018, relate to an investigation into whether he voted illegally in a 2019 municipal election. The criminal complaint said he provided false information to a sheriff’s deputy who was looking into whether he broke state election laws.

The first hearing in the case is set for Dec. 3, a month after the November general election, and Estes said Watkins would have a difficult time doing his job in Congress until the case is resolved.

“He needs to focus on putting his legal problems behind him,” Estes said in a statement. “While he certainly deserves a fair hearing in a court of law, this process won’t play out until after the general election and Republicans cannot put this seat at risk by nominating a candidate charged with multiple felonies.”

Kagay, a Republican who will stand for re-election this year, announced the charges shortly before Watkins was set to appear in a televised primary debate.

Watkins has called the charges “hyper-political” and said he expects to be exonerated.

The motion from Watkins’ team points to the timing of the charges and to connections between Kagay and Watkins’ primary opponent, Jake LaTurner, through a shared direct mail vendor. LaTurner called the assertion absurd Wednesday, noting that hundreds of Republicans use the firm.

Kagay did not immediately reply to an email from The Star about the motion.

Watkins filed a state voter registration form in late August 2019 listing the UPS postal box as his residential address. The postal box still was listed as his residential address when he cast a mailed-in ballot that included a Topeka City Council race in November.

The congressman and his staff have said he inadvertently listed his mailing address instead of his residential address by mistake. He later corrected his address to an apartment, but it is not the same City Council district as the UPS store.