Oklahoma Senate Race Is More Complicated Than ‘Tea Party vs. Establishment’

by Joel Gehrke

Oklahoma’s Republican primary to replace retiring Senator Tom Coburn has some of the hallmarks of a tea-party insurgency: Representative James Lankford started as the favorite of House speaker John Boehner and Republican voters alike, while former state-house speaker T. W. Shannon surged into contention with the support of tea-party icons Sarah Palin, Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), and Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah).

With that cast of characters, it’s easy to view this race as yet another theater in the so-called Republican civil war, as FiveThirtyEight does.

“Before being elected in the tea party wave of 2010, Lankford was the camp director of the Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center. He rose to the fifth-highest position in the House leadership and is seen as the more establishment candidate in the race. Lankford compromised on the debt ceiling in 2011 and 2013, though not in 2014. He has the backing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, among others,” Harry Enten writes. “And where Lankford could be regarded as willing to make deals, Shannon is as pure on principal as they come.”

Shannon has provided some additional reason to look at the race that way — his denunciation of Lankford’s votes to raise the debt ceiling harks back to the tea-party fight with congressional leadership in 2011.

Enten writes that “many tea party groups in Oklahoma haven’t endorsed either candidate,” noting that the local groups tend to back former state senator Randy Brogdon. That fact contains a hint that Republican primary voters in the state have a complicated view of the race. Anecdotal evidence from two days here in the state tends to confirm that hypothesis.

First of all, Lankford’s conservative credentials here are pretty good. The Senate Conservatives Fund called him out as unreliable early in the race, but the voters I talked to regard him as generally solid.

“They’re both just such great candidates,” Debra Wimpee, a Shannon supporter, told National Review Online at a rotary club meeting in Broken Arrow, Okla. Brian O’Hara, a field representative for Representative Jim Bridenstine (SCF’s preferred candidate until he refused to run) said that voters throughout the first congressional district tell him the same thing.

“[Lankford and Shannon are] giving their vision which is, quite frankly, a very similar vision,” O’Hara said after the meeting. “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.”

Lankford thinks that impression helps him, as evidenced by the fact that he opened his Sunday interview with NRO by saying that every candidate in the race is a conservative.

O’Hara’s observations from 600 visits around Bridenstine’s district with Lankford pollster Ed Goeas’ comments to NRO. Goeas said that about 60 percent of candidates have a positive view of both candidates, Lankford’s negatives are around 12 percent. Goeas said that his polling shows that Shannon’s negatives are a little higher, but not much — around 16.

So, voters don’t view either candidate as someone being in the mold of Senator Thad Cochran (R., Miss.). And Shannon doesn’t talk like a Chris McDaniel-style candidate. “Most of us in Oklahoma were Tea Party long before it became cool, and will continue to be. And so, this idea that there are two Republican parties — I reject that notion,” Shannon told NRO on Monday. “For me, as a conservative, I don’t think that that means being anti-business, which I think is usually what boils down when you talk about what has been created as kind of this rift between the conservative party, grassroots versus kind of business interests. I don’t accept that. I’ve never been comfortable with the title that you have to be one or the other.”

Shannon has another difficulty, with a smaller minority of voters: A lot of activists don’t trust him. For instance, Jenni White — the woman who led a grassroots campaign that forced Republican Governor Mary Fallin to sign a repeal of the Common Core standards — described Shannon as “an empty-suit opportunist” to NRO. She said that even though she also credited him with providing the media breakthrough by being the first statewide leader to oppose the standards.

White isn’t the only one to think that way. “We do not want our members and citizen activists to believe that the outside endorsements T.W. Shannon is receiving are supported by the grassroots,” Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, President of the Tulsa 9.12 Project, said in April. “It can be very confusing when these endorsements come from people and organizations we trust, like Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, FreedomWorks, etc.. We have learned to research voting records for ourselves and have an understanding of what “conservative” truly means. After hearing from many grassroots groups it was decided that we would create a letter, working together to get the word out that these endorsements are not a reflection of Oklahoma Tea Parties and conservative organizations views.” Vuillemont-Smith said that she is “disappointed” in Palin, Lee, and Cruz for endorsing Shannon.

Which candidate will she back in a run-off? “I probably will [support Lankford] because I know what I’m getting,” she told NRO on election day.

The activists support Brogdon. A former gubernatorial candidate, Brogdon has more name ID than his current campaign budget suggests. The Tulsa World has him garnering 3 percent, but he could exceed expectations.

“A lot of the people that support him, they don’t do polls,” O’Hara said, predicting that Brogdon gets 6 percent.

Beyond the debt ceiling issuee — which is “not resonating with the people the way the outside groups hoped it would,” according to O’Hara — there isn’t much of a policy fight goig on in the race. No one, for instance, has made Lee and Cruz’s conservative reform agenda a focal point of the race.

“For our team, it’d be great if they would, if one of the two of them would come out and either go with Lee and go with Cruz,” O’Hara said.

Lankford has a chance to avoid a run-off, especially now that Coburn has made comments that Lankford can tout as a “non-endorsement endorsement.” And he perhaps has an edge in the runoff, if it gets to that point, for two reasons. One, there will likely be a run-off for the congressional seat he is vacating that will drive up turnout in his geographic base. Secondly, his strong ties to the churches gives him a ground-game that negates some of the advantage of being the candidate with the support of the national leaders who most excite the conservative base.

That said, Shannon’s not dead, especially if his national supporters come in strong for him. “Palin is very popular amongst the grassroots,” O’Hara said. “They love her, and they love Cruz.”

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