After Ben Sasse’s primary win in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary last month, it seemed like former conservative Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon was next.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), all of whom had backed Sasse, campaigned for Shannon, helping him erase a 35-point deficit in the GOP Oklahoma Senate primary against Rep. James Lankford (R-OK). Shannon had the wind at his back and Lankford, the 5th-ranking member of House GOP leadership, seemed vulnerable in a state that has not elected someone from Oklahoma City to the Senate since 1960.
But Lankford’s strong ties to Falls Creek, where he directed the largest Christian Youth camp in the country for 13 years before he ran for Congress in 2010, and a late nudge from retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) have put him in the driver’s seat ahead of Tuesday’s primary. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two finishers will face off in an August runoff to replace Coburn.
The most recent Sooner Poll, which was taken June 19-21, has Lankford leading Shannon 43% to 35%, with 13% undecided. Five other candidates are in the race, but none gets more than 5%.
Both candidates have high favorability ratings and low unfavorables. They have been cordial in debates and joint appearances. Shannon, the former Oklahoma House Speaker, and Lankford, who was elected as Policy Chair after his first term in the House in 2012, have not differentiated themselves on current hot-button issues like immigration.
For instance, both candidates have not signed the Federation of American Immigration Reform’s (FAIR) anti-amnesty pledge. Shannon has instead tried to frame Lankford as a Washington insider who will continue to increase the nation’s debt and who supported Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget compromise that also slashed benefits for veterans.
But the turning point in the race may have come on June 12. The Senate Conservatives Fund bought a statewide commercial in which a narrator, citing Lankford’s support for raising the debt ceiling, says, “Washington insiders like James Lankford will never change Washington… That’s why we need T.W. Shannon.”
That prompted Coburn, who had vowed to stay neutral in the race, to release a statement criticizing “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 seized on Coburn’s positive statements, running TV ads and sending mailers across the state with Coburn’s quotes and picture.
Bill Shapard, who runs the respected Sooner Poll, emphasized the “timing” of Coburn’s statement and told Breitbart News that Coburn’s words “should not be considered anything but an endorsement.” The Sooner Poll found that two in three Oklahoma GOP primary voters said it was “very important” to elect someone who would vote like Coburn, and Lankford started to pull ahead in what had been been a dead heat after featuring Coburn in his commercials.
Voters in Tulsa and the state’s rural areas are biased against candidates like Lankford from Oklahoma City, but Shapard said that “Lankford has begun to pick up steam in the state’s three rural congressional districts” because of his “Baptist background and running the church’s Fall Creek Camp, where thousands of Oklahomans have gone over the decades.”
“This is helping him bridge over the stigmatism of being from Oklahoma City in order to win,” he told Breitbart News.
Shapard said there is an outside chance that Lankford could even get 50.5% of the vote and potentially win the primary outright. Shannon and his allies, though, are trying to help Shannon make it to a runoff, where the contest could be reset.
Palin has emphasized in recent days that Shannon is needed in D.C. to provide reinforcements for Cruz and Lee, especially since he will represent one of the most conservative states in the country. And Cruz has cut a statewide commercial for Shannon to try to swing the momentum back to him.
“In Oklahoma, there are a number of good Senate candidates. But T.W. Shannon is a conservative fighter. He has the courage to look Washington insiders in the eye and say, ‘I don’t work for you, I work for the people of Oklahoma,” Cruz says in a commercial that started to air on June 19.
And when an outside group attacked Shannon, who has also been endorsed by former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, on the airwaves last week, Coburn called them out as well.
“Last week I spoke out against political advertisements in Oklahoma unfairly and inaccurately attacking James Lankford. To be fair, I must also comment on the equally disappointing negative advertisements airing in the state by the Foundation for Economic Prosperity, Inc. attacking T.W. Shannon,” Coburn said. “They are wrong and should be rejected by Oklahomans… The negative on-air advertisements and untruthful mail pieces against both Lankford and Shannon should stop.”
When the results start coming in on Tuesday, Shapard said to look at how strongly Lankford does in his congressional district, where he is leading Shannon by 29 points, and how Shannon does in the Tulsa region, an area that comprises 41% of the Oklahoma Republican electorate. Shannon has been underperforming in the Tulsa metropolitan area in the polls, trailing Lankford by seven points, and he needs to do better there. Shannon fares better in the wider Oklahoma City area, leading Lankford by four points.
Shapard expressed the sentiment of many Oklahoma GOP primary voters he polled when he said both men have “great Oklahoma narratives” and, “it’s a shame one has to win and one has to lose.”