Most years, two term Congressman Jim Lankford (R-OK) would be considered a shoe-in to replace retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) as his party’s nominee in the upcoming Oklahoma U.S. Senate Republican primary this June 24. With a reliably conservative voting record (Heritage Action Scorecard rates him at 82 percent) and the support of the Washington establishment, Lankford entered the race when Coburn suddenly announced his retirement in January with a 37 point lead in the polls.
But Lankford’s top challenger, former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, has made a surprisingly strong challenge, climbing from a huge deficit to run neck-and-neck with Lankford in polls from this spring.
Shannon served as the youngest Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives ever from 2012 to 2014. While there, he established a strong conservative record as a fiscal hawk, supporting efforts to eliminate the state’s debt by selling off unused state assets. He has continued in his Senate campaign to support classic conservative positions.
Shannon’s limited government message has garnered the support of a host of national Tea Party groups–including the Senate Conservatives Fund–as well as some high profile Tea Party favorite politicians. Sarah Palin, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz have all endorsed him.
As long-shot challenger David Brat’s unprecedented upset over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday illustrated, 2014 is turning out to be a volatile political year, and Shannon may be a beneficiary of that change in the national mood.
On Wednesday, Sarah Palin said, “Grassroots commonsense conservatives can use this momentum [from the Dave Brat victory] to push good candidates like Chris McDaniel, T.W. Shannon, and Rob Maness to victory for America. These candidates are also being massively outspent by establishment candidates and they need our help and energy.”
The Senate Conservatives Fund, which is backing Shannon, has pilloried Lankford as a “Washington insider” and attacked him for voting twice to increase the debt ceiling.
In 2011, Lankford voted to increase the debt ceiling in the Budget Control Act, which included major spending cuts, although not enough for 66 Republicans who voted no. He also voted to increase the debt ceiling in 2013 as part of the “No Budget, No Pay” deal that garnered the support of all but 33 Republicans.
More recently, Lankford voted against a “clean” debt ceiling increase in February. He also voted against the “fiscal cliff” deal in February 2013.
Though the retiring Coburn has not endorsed either candidate, the SCF ad and another by Oklahomans for a Conservative Future criticizing Lankford as a supporter of “an Obama budget” have raised his ire. He has quickly defended Lankford, a friend who shares his interest in Congressional oversight.
“I am sickened that the only way someone can win a race is to run negative ads against them,” Coburn told News OK. The ads by the outside groups, he said, were “absolutely untruthful.”
For his part, Shannon has distanced himself from the ads, pointing out that they are produced by independent groups with whom he and his campaign do not coordinate.
Lankford issued his own statement about the ads. “I am opposed to negative ads,” he said.
“I agree with Dr. Coburn that a campaign should be about a candidate’s own ideas and not disparaging his opponent,” Lankford added. “I think all of these outside groups should end the negative ads. I remain disappointed that my opponent has not called on these groups to stop their untruthful attacks on my campaign, but he has now added his voice to those attacks through his own campaign’s television ads and direct mail hit pieces.”
Lankford voted in favor of the farm bill, which might be expected given the state he is representing. But he also voted against additional work requirements for recipients of SNAP (food stamp) benefits. The vote was on an amendment from Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from another state with a heavy agriculture footprint, Kansas, and only 24 percent of Republicans voted “no.”
As Speaker of the Oklahoma House, Shannon championed successful legislation that denied SNAP benefits to Oklahoma residents who refused to work. The SNAP program is administered by each local state government.
In Oklahoma, some local tea party groups, which tend to have a strongly libertarian flavor, are backing neither Shannon nor Lankford, but have written a letter criticizing the outside groups behind Shannon and supporting distant third place challenger Randy Brogdon, as Breitbart News reported in April.
Both as Speaker and in his campaign statements, Shannon has emerged as a debt hawk, claiming that he will not support any increase in debt distinguishes him from Lankford.
Shannon also displays a strong commitment to free markets, supporting recently, for instance, an end to the federal minimum wage.
Lankford, whose background is in Evangelical ministry, has been endorsed by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Shannon, a protege of former Congressman J.C. Watts (R-OK), also has the star power of a compelling personal story. If elected, he would be the first African-American United States Senator from Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Senate race is expected to have no impact on control of the Senate, an issue that is in the balance during this November’s election. Republicans need to pick up a net six seats from Democrats from the 35 Senate contests on the ballot this year to win a majority in the upper house. Despite Coburn’s retirement, whoever wins the Republican nomination will likely coast to victory in the general election.
Recent polls show Lanfkord and Shannon in a virtual tie–both poll in the mid thirties. Should neither candidate receive the 50 percent plus one required to win the June 24 primary outright, the top two candidates are expected to face off in an August runoff. A third candidate, former state Senator Randy Brogdon, is also on the ballot, but his support has dropped to single digits.
The Sooner Poll, conducted May 5 to May 8, showed Lankford leading Shannon by a 33 percent to 31 percent margin. With a sample size of 580 and a plus or minus four percent margin of error, the poll shows a virtual dead heat between the two.
Shannon expects that neither he nor Lankford will obtain enough votes on June 24 to avoid a runoff between the two men in August. He recently told KRMG in Tulsa, “We’ve always anticipated a runoff. With seven people in the race, it’s just pretty difficult to avoid a runoff situation.”
He said his likely runoff opponent, Representative James Lankford, is “clearly is the 800-pound gorilla, having the support of the Washington, D.C. establishment.”
“[T]o have started 37 points behind and to be in what all the public polls indicate is a dead heat, is pretty miraculous. It’s in large part due to northeast Oklahoma. Northeast Oklahoma has responded to our message of limited government,” he said.