The Republican primary in the 2nd District of Kansas took on new meaning Wednesday with State Treasurer Jake LaTurner's decision to bail from a U.S. Senate campaign to challenge first-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins for an eastern Kansas seat in Congress.

LaTurner was urged by prominent GOP political leaders to exit the crowded field seeking the Republican nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and to invest in thwarting re-election of Watkins, who has been dogged by personal controversy since the 2018 campaign.

"We care deeply about the Second District, our great state and the future of this country," LaTurner said. "Second District residents deserve a solid conservative fighter they can count on."

He said he was appalled by work of Democrats in Washington, D.C., and viewed the 2020 election as "a critical one for our state and nation."

"We must nominate a Republican that can win the general election and fight for our conservative principles," LaTurner said.

There has been recent speculation Watkins might resign from office, but the congressman has dismissed such talk by denouncing rumors of a relationship with a former intern on his U.S. House staff.

Bryan Piligra, a spokesman for Watkins, said the contrast between LaTurner and Watkins would be evident to eastern Kansas voters.

"A life of service versus a life of self-service," Piligra said. "Congressman Watkins is a war veteran, engineer and conservative leader who votes in support of our president 93% of the time."

He criticized LaTurner's votes while a member of the Kansas Senate that increased the state sales tax rate from 5.7% to 6.3%. Both pieces of legislation were championed by then-Gov. Sam Brownback and other Republicans in response to revenue declines triggered by aggressive cuts in individual income tax rates and an exemption given more than 300,000 business owners.

Piligra also said LaTurner's career was about climbing the political ladder and "that climb ends in August."

LaTurner, a former state senator from southeast Kansas, was appointed state treasurer by Sam Brownback in 2017. LaTurner was elected to that post in 2018. He announced intention to run for U.S. Senate in January.

Last week, Republican Jeff Colyer, who replaced Brownback as governor, urged LaTurner to move over to the 2nd District contest. Colyer said Watkins was unlikely to win election to a second term in Congress.