Rep. James Lankford (R-OK), the 5th-ranking member of the House GOP leadership, won the Oklahoma Senate special primary election outright on Tuesday, avoiding an August runoff against T.W. Shannon, the former Oklahoma House Speaker who was backed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT).
The Associated Press called the race after Lankford had about 56% of the vote with nearly 70% of the precincts reporting. Lankford needed to get over 50% of the vote to win the nomination outright.
Lankford will be a shoo-in to replace retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) in one of the reddest states in the nation, and he may owe his ascension to the 13 years he spent directing the largest Christian Youth camp in the country at Falls Creek. A late and well-timed boost from Coburn and Shannon’s refusal to clearly differentiate himself from Lankford also were factors.
Oklahomans have not elected someone from Oklahoma City like Lankford to the U.S. Senate since 1960, mainly because rural voters have a bias against candidates from where the State Capitol is, but Bill Shapard, who directs the respected Sooner Poll, told Breitbart News that Lankford’s strong ties to Falls Creek helped “him bridge over the stigmatism of being from Oklahoma City.”
Palin, Cruz, and Lee endorsed Shannon early and helped him close what had been a 35-point deficit against Lankford in March. But when the Senate Conservatives Fund bought a statewide accusing Lankford of being a Washington insider who “will never change Washington” on June 12, Coburn, who had vowed to stay neutral in the race, released a statement in which he criticized “advertisements by groups such as Senate Conservatives Fund and Oklahomans for a Conservative Future” that he said “simply aren’t truthful” and “mischaracterize James Lankford’s service in Congress.”
“I have come to know James Lankford in his short but very productive time in Washington, and I know he is a man of absolute integrity,” Coburn said. “We haven’t always agreed, but he is one of the most honest, thoughtful and sincere men I have met in my time in Washington.”
Lankford’s campaign ran TV ads and sent mailers with Coburn’s picture and quotes, and he started to surge in a race that had been a dead heat in a state in which two in three GOP primary voters believed it was “very important” to elect someone like Coburn to the Senate.
Lankford led Shannon 43% to 35%, with 13% undecided, in the final Sooner Poll before the primary. But Shapard told Breitbart News that his polling showed that Lankford could get 50.5% of the vote and avoid a runoff.
Shannon may have had his best opportunity to gain momentum in the race three weeks ago when the Obama administration told Fort Sill military base, which is located in Shannon’s hometown of Lawton, OK, to get ready to house about 600 illegal immigrant children sent from Texas and Arizona. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said the Obama administration’s policy only “exposes our military facilities to unknown security concerns.”
But Lankford and Shannon mainly said the same things about the border crisis, with both candidates refusing to sign the Federation of American Immigration Reform’s (FAIR) anti-amnesty pledge. Instead of contrasting himself from Lankford on amnesty, Shannon solely tried to frame Lanford as someone, because of his vote to increase the debt ceiling, who would continue to raise the country’s debt. But it was not enough to convince primary voters who viewed both candidates favorably to shift back to Shannon, especially when they did not see much daylight between the two candidates on most hot-button issues dear to conservative voters.
Shapard told Breitbart News before the primary, expressing what many voters he polled felt, that Shannon and Lankford have “great Oklahoma narratives” and, “it’s a shame one has to win and one has to lose.”
Lankford was first elected to Congress in 2010 and elected to his current leadership post after his first term in 2012.