Kevin McCarthy, national Republicans tout Jake LaTurner as rising star in bid for Congress
With three weeks left before the Nov. 3 general election, State Treasurer Jake LaTurner got a boost Tuesday in his bid for the 2nd Congressional District — a visit from a man who could become his colleague, U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy’s stop in Topeka underscores the importance of the race to both state and national Republicans in a year where Republicans appear unlikely to regain control of the House.
LaTurner is locked in a competitive race with Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, with the race starting to heat up as both candidates air their first television ads throughout the sweeping district, which runs from northeast Kansas to the Oklahoma border.
And while the political news outlet Five Thirty Eight gives McCarthy and House Republicans a 5% chance of regaining control of the House, McCarthy was firmly focused Tuesday on ensuring that LaTurner is in the ranks come January 2021.
“I will tell you, I don't know that another person is more better prepared to serve in Congress than Jake,” McCarthy said. “There's no greater contrast in any race probably across this country. I can be anywhere in any campaign, but I chose to be here today.”
At 32 years old, the Pittsburg resident already has made political waves in the state.
First elected to the Kansas Senate at the age of 24, LaTurner was the youngest member in the body.
LaTurner was then appointed to the state treasurer’s seat in 2017, replacing Ron Estes after he won a special election held to fill former Rep. Mike Pompeo’s 4th Congressional District seat.
After a brief fling with the U.S. Senate primary last year, LaTurner then shifted focus to challenging incumbent Rep. Steve Watkins, who was generally unpopular with party leaders following his narrow victory in 2018.
Watkins grew more vulnerable after his indictment on mail fraud charges in July tied to his listing of a UPS Store address as his voting address.
LaTurner’s victory over Watkins in August prompted a sigh of relief for some Republicans, who viewed Watkins’ baggage as making him significantly more vulnerable to Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, the Democrat running for the seat.
McCarthy’s presence in the district appeared to be an effort to reassure Republican voters that it was back to business as usual.
“He’s really contrasting himself with Steve Watkins, who was never fully embraced by the Republican establishment,” said Bob Beatty, chair of the political science department at Washburn University, who framed it almost as an extension of the August primary.
With a win in November, LaTurner is aiming to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, former Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who served in the Legislature and as treasurer before heading to Washington, D.C.
Experts note that such a win isn’t a foregone conclusion, pointing to the fact that De La Isla is a well-funded opponent with a compelling story and name recognition in the 2nd Congressional District’s largest city, Topeka.
And with President Donald Trump’s polling weaker than it was four years ago in Kansas and Democrats running close in the state’s U.S. Senate race, victory for LaTurner isn’t preordained.
“We’re not seeing LaTurner stress the Trump connection,” Beatty said. “We also didn’t see that in the primary. Obviously he is a Republican but he is trying to forge his own identity.”
Both candidates have begun airing television ads, with just three weeks until voters head to the polls on Nov. 3. And the pair will square off in two debates this week on local television, which will give them another chance to reach undecided voters.
But many in the 2nd District may well be preparing to cast their ballots by mail sooner rather than later.
Seventeen of the 23 counties fully housed within the district have seen over 10% of voters request a mail ballot and a handful have blown past that figure, especially in Douglas County, where 37% of voters have done so.
McCarthy encouraged those who had requested a ballot to follow through in mailing it back, expressing none of the skepticism in the mail voting process that other conservatives nationally have shared.
“We need your vote in the mail,” he said.
LaTurner’s case to those voters making up their minds was simple: I am a better fit for the district.
“(De La Isla) has to sell a different bill of goods to the people of Kansas,” he said. “She pretends as though she's a modern when nothing could be further from the truth.”
Like Jenkins, who represented the 2nd Congressional District for over a decade, many believe LaTurner will have staying power in the state’s political landscape if he were to win.
“A big part of who he is politically is as someone who learned from her and learned from her how to lock down that district,” said Pat Leopold, a GOP consultant working on the LaTurner campaign and Jenkins’ former chief of staff.
National Republicans have taken note, with the National Republican Congressional Committee tapping LaTurner as part of its Young Guns program, which aims to identify and back promising candidates.
Both De La Isla and LaTurner were regarded as strong recruits for their respective parties, Beatty noted.
If either were to win, they could quickly become stars in Washington, he said.
“There may be no limit to where he may go,” Beatty said of LaTurner. “You could say the same about De La Isla.”
But for now, LaTurner said, he is focused on the weeks ahead.
“The differences between myself and my opponent could not be starker,” he said. “The people of this district want somebody that's willing to go to Washington, D.C., to lay down on the tracks and to get something done.”