It hasn’t garnered as much attention as it might, but the upcoming open senate primary in Oklahoma is yet another surrogate battle between the outsiders and the insiders. (It’s more complex than that, of course, but this is the simplistic narrative that will frame how the outcome is interpreted.)
On one hand, you have T.W. Shannon, the 36-year old former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, who happens to be half Native American and half African-American. He’s backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz.
And, on the other hand, you have Rep. James Lankford — who has the misfortune of working in Washington, DC. For our purposes, he is being cast as the “establishment” guy. But if the goal is to turn Lankford into the next Eric Cantor, there may be complications. Last week, for example, retiring Sen. Tom Coburn ripped outside groups backing Shannon. As Politico noted,
“The current political advertisements by groups such as Senate Conservatives Fund and Oklahomans for a Conservative Future supporting T.W. Shannon have crossed an important line — they simply aren’t truthful and they mischaracterize James Lankford’s service in Congress,” Coburn said. “How someone runs a campaign says a lot about how that person would govern.”
Even before that, Hugh Hewitt made a pretty compelling case that Lankford has a surprise weapon up his sleeve:
Lankford ran Falls Creek for nearly a decade-and-a-half before running for Congress. The formal title of Falls Creek is “Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center,” but it is really known as Falls Creek youth camp, because that is what it has been since 1917, and while other groups use the facilities, its eight weeks of summer youth camp annually attracts 50,000 young campers. The alumni and their families and friends are legion, and they are loyal.
Do the math in your head: 50,000 mostly Baptist kids a summer, going and coming to a famed youth camp and thereafter singing its many and deserved praises. Generations of campers and their friends and families share this experience, and Lankford ran the place from 1996 to 2009. That is a calling. It is also an almost impossible-to-overstate advantage in retail politics. Race isn’t going to decide this race. Falls Creek will.
And now, to top it all off, RollCall’s Alexis Levinson reports,
As of 6/4, Lankford had more than double cash on hand as Shannon in #OKSEN — $731k v. $330k — per FEC report
— Alexis Levinson (@alexis_levinson) June 16, 2014
Meanwhile, Shannon is running hard. He’s out with two new ads this final week, pushing back on attacks. One of them features former Rep. J.C. Watts:
If we’ve learned anything of late, it’s that nobody knows what’s going to happen — or, in this case, if there will have to be an August run-off before we reach the denouement.
And while there have been reports and laments about all the “political mudslinging,” this race reminds me a little bit of that equally nasty Nebraska senate race, which now feels like ancient history. In that case, the “tea party” candidate (Ben Sasse) — who also endorsed by Cruz, Palin, and SCF — actually had plenty of establishment credentials, while the establishment guy (Shane Osborn) was also reasonably conservative.
Similarly, the odds are that whoever eventually prevails in Oklahoma may end up being palatable to the losing side, which is a good thing for those hoping to move mast the internecine struggles and negative campaign ads — and focus on winning the senate in November.
It’s not that Republicans could lose Oklahoma in November (that’s highly unlikely), but hard feelings tend to have a spillover effect.
UPDATE: An earlier version listed Shannon as the Oklahoma Speaker of the House, but I’ve been informed he gave up his speakership responsibilities to seek this senate seat.