Representative James Lankford (R., Okla) won the primary to replace retiring Senator Tom Coburn, defeating state Representative and former House Speaker T.W. Shannon in a race that was supposed to be closer after conservative icons such as Sarah Palin, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz endorsed against Lankford.
Lankford won 57 percent of the vote, a total boosted by the fact that Coburn made it clear in the final days of the race that the congressman was his pick. “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,” the very popular senator said on June 13, adding that Lankford had ”fought an often lonely battle against the status quo.”
Lankford was careful not to call that an endorsement, but he was also careful to play it up for all it was worth. “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 told National Review Online during an interview Sunday in his Oklahoma City office, “but it’s the closest non-endorsement endorsement you’re ever going to see.” He featured Coburn’s statement in television and radio ads as well as a mail piece that hit on Friday.
The message was sent. “I was kind of surprised, because I didn’t know that he would endorse one way or another,” Debra Wimpee, a Shannon supporter, told NRO while discussing Coburn’s statement after a rotary club meeting in Broken Arrow, Okla., that Shannon attended Monday during his last push to drive turnout in the Tulsa area.
Wimpee added that the top priority for most voters in that race was “finding the best candidate as someone as great as Dr. No.” She regarded Lankford and Shannon as two good conservatives, but said that Shannon has more upside. “You could see him as a presidential candidate,” she said.
At the same meeting, an aide to Representative Jim Bridenstine said that Wimpee’s praise for both candidates is common throughout the state. “[Lankford and Shannon are] giving their vision which is, quite frankly, a very similar vision,” field representative Brian O’Hara said. “Your rank-and-file, and that’s who I deal with mainly, they’re looking at this very logically. They’re saying, ok, on both sides, they believe they’re both very conservative…The grassroots, the people that I speak to say, both men can do the job.”
That was Lankford’s argument. “We have seven conservative candidates,” he told NRO Sunday. ”That’s what’s interesting in this. I have a lot of folks that come from the outside and will say, ‘ok, define for me who is the tea party and who is the establishment’ because that’s the typical lens. And you get to Oklahoma and look at the seven candidates and you go, they’re all conservative candidates. In any race, anywhere in the country, you would look at all seven and go, ‘well that would be your real tea party group there.’”
Lankford was the early favorite in the race, the congressman who represented the most populous area of the state and previously running a major Baptist camp in Oklahoma. For Shannon to pull off the win, he needed to convince voters who had very possibly voted for Lankford in a previous election that they should go with someone else in the Senate cycle. If voters see two candidates who are equally conservative, why support the one they don’t know as well?
That dynamic had Shannon’s national conservative supporters frustrated even before election day. “We’re a little disappointed that [Shannon] hasn’t taken more to the ideas,” a conservative supporter in D.C. said on Friday. “The platitudes aren’t working…’lower taxes, more freedom, and less government,’ that might have gotten you across the finish line in , but people want more than that now. At the very least, you’ve got to say that you have solutions.”