ATCHISON, Kan. — Republicans descended on downtown Atchison on Wednesday evening with a U.S. Congress race in the spotlight.

Vernon Fields of Basehor, state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald of Leavenworth, state Rep. Kevin Jones of Wellsville, state Sen. Dennis Pyle of Hiawatha, state Sen. Caryn Tyson of Parker and Steve Watkins of Topeka, gathered at Elizabeth’s, a public event space above Jerry’s Again restaurant.

The seventh remaining contender for the U.S. House of Representatives, former Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays, was not expected to attend. Contenders for the top of the ticket, Gov. Jeff Colyer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and former state Sen. Jim Barnett didn’t make it.

The seven congressional hopefuls are fighting a close race for the right to succeed U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who is retiring from politics at the end of the year. When a Republican nominee is determined on Tuesday, Aug. 7, standing in their way is presumptive Democratic nominee former Rep. Paul Davis of Lawrence.

Who is best equipped to defeat him on Nov. 6 is now the top issue in the race, in a 2nd U.S. Congressional District anticipated by some to be a bellwether for control of the U.S. House.

“Well the fact is, Paul Davis is running a campaign right now as a weak Republican, not as a Democrat,” said Fitzgerald, a retired U.S. Army officer. “I think he intends to do that right through the general. And my intention is to make him run as a Democrat. To hold him accountable for the Democratic platform and a Democratic leadership. By doing that I hope to rally the troops and defeat him.”

Tyson, a farmer and scientist who has worked for NASA in the past, said she’s confident she can win the whole race.

“We will defeat our competition in the general because of his voting record,” she said. “I have a record that I’m running on, he has a record that he’s running from ... Think who will be the strongest representative in Washington, D.C. We need someone who is going to stand strong with Kansas values.”

Jones, who served in the U.S. Army Special Forces, commonly known as the Green Berets, said he recognizes that in rallying behind Davis, the Democrats have a strategic edge. For this reason, he said, a strong Republican nominee is needed, and he said only he is equipped for the contest.

“I’ve proven myself in defeating an incumbent Democrat (Bill Feuerborn in 2012). My district is the same exact percentage makeup as the whole 2nd U.S. Congressional District. I will win in exactly the same way as (Jenkins) won. Not only do I have the conservative vote, but I will pull in moderates and some Democrats too. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Pyle, who has represented Atchison in the Kansas Senate for more than 10 years, cited his strengths as a career farmer and experienced legislator in the race.

“I’m the only candidate in the race where my record backs my rhetoric. I’ve opposed and fought every tax increase before me — and I’m the only one who can say that.”

In a statement, Watkins said Atchison is a “historic and important” location for Republicans to gather.

“I’d like to thank the Atchison and Doniphan GOP groups for hosting an event that allows voters to interact with candidates from across the state,” he said. “As we draw closer to election time, events like this are vital for us all.”

The deadline to register to vote in the primary election is Tuesday, July 17. For more information, visit www.kansas.gop.

Marcus Clem can be reached at marcus.clem@newspressnow.com.