Watkins was born in De Queen, Arkansas but moved to Oklahoma as a boy. He graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1960, receiving a master's degree from that same school in 1961. After a brief stint working for the United States Department of Agriculture, he worked as an administrator at his alma mater from 1963 to 1966. During that time, he was initiated into Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity as an honorary member while serving as their faculty advisor. Later, he spent two years heading one of the first economic development districts in the country, based in Ada.
Watkins became active in Democratic party politics in the early 1970s, and was elected to the Oklahoma State Senate in 1974. Two years later, U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert announced his retirement after 30 years representing Oklahoma's 3rd Congressional District. The district, which was based in the southeastern part of the state and known as Little Dixie, was heavily Democratic in both local and national elections. Watkins faced a formidable opponent in Albert's popular longtime Chief of Staff and Administrative Assistant Charles Ward. However, Watkins, a homebuilder and remodeler and wife Lou, a political science teacher had closer local ties in the district, as Ward had been in Washington DC for decades. Watkins prevailed in the Democratic primary runoff and he then gained Albert's endorsement and won the general election with 82% of the vote. He was re-elected six more times, always by close to 80% of the vote. For most of this time, he served on the Budget or Appropriations Committees, allowing him to bring large amounts of money to his mostly rural and agricultural district. He was also very active in oil and natural gas issues, and took particularly strong interest in economic development issues for his rural district.
Watkins didn't seek an eighth congressional term in 1990, but instead raised a then record setting 3 million dollars and ran for the Democratic nomination for governor. He ran ahead of House Speaker Steve Lewis, yet lost to eventual winner David Walters, who had been the Democratic Gubernatorial nominee 4 years earlier in 1986. Watkins was openly disappointed in the lack of support of the hierarchy of the state Democratic party. In 1994, Watkins ran for governor again, this time as an independent. He only won 23% of the vote. However, his independent candidacy siphoned off enough votes from Lieutenant Governor Jack Mildren, the Democratic candidate, to allow Frank Keating, a Reagan administration official, to become only the third Republican governor in Oklahoma history. Watkins tallied over 233,000 votes, far more than Keating's 171,000-vote margin over Mildren.
In 1996, Bill Brewster, a Democrat and former state representative from Marietta, Oklahoma who had succeeded Watkins in the 3rd District, decided to retire from Congress as it became known that Watkins wanted his seat back. The House leadership persuaded him to run as a Republican. They promised a seat on the Ways and Means Committee with full seniority if he ran as a Republican and won. No congressman had ever served on all three of the major financial committees (Appropriations, Budget and Ways and Means) before. Despite Albert endorsing Watkins' Democratic opponent State Sen. Darryl Roberts, Watkins won a narrow victory, becoming the first Republican to represent this district called Little Dixie since Oklahoma joined the Union in 1907. The Republicans had never made a serious bid for the seat before.
He initially planned to retire from office in 1998 after undergoing back surgery, but was persuaded to run again. He was handily re-elected that year defeating Walt Roberts and faced no major-party opposition when he ran for his third term in 2000.
Watkins' voting record in his first period in Congress had been characterized as somewhat moderate. During his second period, however, his voting record was strongly conservative, usually receiving ratings in the high 90s from the American Conservative Union.
Oklahoma lost a congressional seat after the 2000 census due to slower than expected population growth. The final map saw Watkins' district dismantled, with its territory split between three nearby districts. His home in Stillwater (where he had lived since 1990) was drawn into the western Oklahoma-based 3rd district (the former 6th district), represented by fellow Republican Frank Lucas. Most of his old base in Little Dixie was merged into the Muskogee-based 2nd district. The western portion, including Watkins' former home in Ada, was drawn into the Norman-based 4th district. Faced with the prospect of running in territory that he did not know and that did not know him, Watkins announced he would retire for good. In an indication of how much his politics had evolved since leaving the House for the first time, Watkins served as honorary chairman for conservative Senator Jim Inhofe's bid for a second full term.Wes Watkins Technology Center
Inducted into Oklahoma CareerTech Hall of Fame in 1991.
Wes Watkins Reservoir in central Oklahoma was named in honor of him.
The Wes Watkins Agricultural Research and Extension Center owned by Oklahoma State University.