Claiming Coburn’s Mantle

by Joel Gehrke
In the Oklahoma Senate primary, Shannon makes an issue of Lankford’s debt-ceiling votes.

Oklahoma City, Okla. – Representative James Lankford (R., Okla.) isn’t lowering expectations as the primary to replace retiring senator Tom Coburn approaches Tuesday.

“All of our strategy, all of our focus, is: How do you win this without a runoff?” Lankford tells National Review Online in an interview at his campaign headquarters. “Now, if we have a runoff, we’ll be prepared. We have a Plan B; we just like Plan A better.”

On Sunday morning, Plan A for Lankford and former Oklahoma house speaker T. W. Shannon alike was to claim Coburn’s mantle, especially when it came time for them to discuss Lankford’s House votes to raise the debt ceiling

Shannon has cited the votes as his primary critique of Lankford, who regards it as an unfair distortion of his record.

“When the proposal actually worked to get us out of the hole, I approved it and said let’s move forward. When it came and it kept the status quo, I said no,” Lankford said Sunday morning during a joint appearance with Shannon on Flash Point, a local political show.

“That’s no different than all other Republicans as they’ve gone through this. [Former representative] J. C. Watts who has raised the debt ceiling four different times when he was there; [Senator] Jim Inhofe has raised the debt ceiling six different times; Tom Coburn has raised the debt ceiling multiple times; [Representative] Tom Cole has raised the debt ceiling multiple times. Those are hard decisions in hard moments.”

Shannon had a quick reply to undermine the suggestion that Lankford’s debt-ceiling votes were of a piece with Coburn’s.

“When you mention the debt-ceiling votes that you made, both of our two U.S. senators voted ‘no’ on that,” he countered. “And so, this idea that we’ve got to continue increasing debt and to figure out reasons why it’s okay, that’s what the problem is.”

Lankford acknowledges that the attack isn’t an easy one to rebut in a Republican primary, despite his confidence that it’s unfair. “It’s so much easier just to say, never do a debt-ceiling increase and you’ll balance [the budget], because people are used to just dealing with their personal finances and saying, ‘You know what, I can’t go into debt anymore, I’ll cut whatever has to be cut,’” he says. “It’s so much easier to do the bumper sticker than it is to try to explain the consequences of that. So, it is tougher, but it needs to be done either way.”

The Senate hopeful calls attention to one Shannon ad in particular that featured footage originally used in a Lankford spot. “[Shannon] took our commercial, stripped out the audio, and put in his stuff as a negative piece,” he said, adding that he’d never seen such a tactic.

Are there legal problems with the appropriation of footage? “Probably, but by the time you get it resolved, the election is over,” Lankford says.

Lankford isn’t running any of his own contrast ads, beyond emphasizing pointedly that he’s not the one who went negative, but he is using the opportunity to indicate another analogy between himself and Coburn. Coburn also served in the House before running for the Senate.

“The three years that I’ve been there, I’ve focused on the budget issues,” Lankford says. “That’s what I love to do. Working on the budget committee — that’s allowed me to start laying out a long-term plan. I’ve talked to an awful lot of people who have said the same thing to me: ‘You have the experience, you know how to solve this, you’re actually there. Right now, we need someone with experience to move to the Senate.’”

Lankford’s team thinks the ads by Shannon and his supporters have backfired. “He has not been driving our negatives up as much as he’s been driving his own negatives up,” pollster Ed Goeas maintains. “He’s actually raising his as much if not a little bit more than he has ours.”

Certainly, the ads — launched chiefly by independent groups such as Oklahomans for a Conservative Future — have provided Lankford with the gist of his closing argument.

At this point in the race, Lankford wants to talk about two things: Coburn and the attacks.

“Two weeks ago, Dr. Coburn got sick of the over $1 million that have been spent on negative stuff, and he released a statement from his office saying the ads were misleading, they were untrue, and he defined out my character and said, ‘This is what I’ve known of him,’ and said so in a public statement,” Lankford says.

Shannon hastened to point out that Coburn also denounced ads by outside groups attacking him.

Lankford’s team hasn’t conducted any polling since Coburn first made the statements. A survey conducted June 14–18 on behalf of the Tulsa World showed Lankford with a 41–38 lead, with 16 percent undecided. June 19–21, the same pollster conducted another survey of likely Republican primary voters for NewsOn6 that gave Lankford 43.4 percent of the vote, compared with 34.9 percent for Shannon. Another 13.3 percent were undecided.

Lankford’s campaign has featured Coburn’s remarks — in which the elder statesman praises him as “a man of absolute integrity” who “has dedicated himself to the hard work of oversight of federal agencies” — in television and radio ads as well as a direct-mail piece that hit Friday.

“If you read the statement that [Coburn] made, he has said over and over again that he was not going to endorse in this race,” Lankford says, “but it’s the closest non-endorsement endorsement you’re ever going to see.”

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.