WASHINGTON — Tom Coburn did it easily in 2004. But it’s a wide-open question whether one of the Republicans trying to succeed him in the U.S. Senate can pull it off 10 years later.
That is: Could U.S. Rep. James Lankford or state Rep. T.W. Shannon grab the GOP nomination for the open Senate seat in the first round, thus sparing Oklahomans two more months of campaign commercials aimed at the tiny fraction of voters who would turn out in late August to decide the race?
Campaign veterans said there is a path for either of the two men to win without a runoff, though. With a month to go before the June 24 primary, the dynamics of the race could change a lot.
Polls in the race — mostly paid for by the candidates or outside groups backing a candidate — have jumped all over the place. But there has been one consistent factor: Former state Sen. Randy Brogdon and four political novices on the ballot are drawing less than 10 percent combined.
Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Dave Weston said that if support for Brogdon stays at 7 percent or below, it will be far more likely that either Shannon, of Lawton, or Lankford, of Oklahoma City, can win the margin — 50 percent plus one vote — necessary to claim the nomination June 24. If neither can get there, they’ll head to a run-off Aug. 26.
The determining factor could be negative advertising, which is no doubt coming.
So far, the ads run by Lankford and Shannon have been aimed primarily at assuring voters that they love God and hate Obamacare. And they could stick with that kind of message through June.
But the so-called “dark money” groups — organized so they don’t have to identify their donors — have already spent about $1 million combined in the race to promote Lankford and Shannon and could go negative in the next few weeks.
If it appears that one of the candidates is going to win without a runoff, the “negative campaign ads will start to fly,’’ according to a veteran GOP consultant in Oklahoma.
Besides hurting the candidate targeted by the ads, the negative spots also could increase support for Brogdon and the unknown candidates in the race as voters would turn away from Lankford and Shannon. That would make it much harder for either to get to 50 percent.
Weston said Oklahomans generally don’t like negative ads and he expects Lankford and Shannon to “remain classy” in the next few weeks.
“The (outside) groups don’t have as much to lose,” Weston said.
The Oklahoma-based group backing Shannon, Oklahomans for a Conservative Future, lost its main operative this month when lobbyist Chad Alexander was arrested with cocaine and pills in his car and headed to rehab. But there are national groups backing Shannon that could step in, much like the Club for Growth did for Coburn in 2004.
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