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.
Lankford in the West, Shannon in the East
In 2004, Coburn — who had retired from his U.S. House seat four years earlier — crushed two well-financed candidates and one unknown candidate and snagged the GOP nomination for the open Senate seat without a runoff.
In 2010, Mary Fallin defeated Brogdon and two political unknowns to claim the Republican nomination for governor without a runoff.
At the time, Fallin held the Oklahoma City-area congressional seat that Lankford now occupies. She lost Tulsa County and some of the surrounding areas to Brogdon, who had a state Senate district there, but she won Oklahoma County big, along with most of the rest of the state.
A poll released last week by Lankford’s campaign had him way ahead in his own congessional district and winning the two congressional districts that cover central and western Oklahoma. Shannon was ahead in the Tulsa-area congressional district and the eastern Oklahoma district.
That tracked with a News 9/News on 6 poll released a few days earlier that showed Lankford up in three of the five congressional districts. That poll had Lankford up by two points statewide, while Lankford’s poll had him up by 10 points.
After an advertising blitz by Shannon and the dark money group backing him, the Lawton Republican surged ahead in polls. In late April, the group paid for a poll that showed Shannon up 10 points.
“Their whole strategy was: ‘We’ll create the image that we’re surging ahead and everyone will jump on our bandwagon,’” a source close to Lankford said last week.
Whatever the strategy, Shannon has held on to his lead in eastern Oklahoma, including the Tulsa media market, while Lankford is strong in the Oklahoma City area.
Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor, said, “I think there’s a path for either of them to get there” without a runoff.
“If Lankford can run just ahead in Tulsa, he can get there (without a runoff),” Gaddie said. “If Shannon can run substantially ahead in Tulsa, he can get there without a runoff.”
Ultimately, Gaddie said, the outcome will be determined by targeting the right voters and getting them out to vote.
Safe seat for GOP
There is little question the Republican nominee will go on to win the race in November. No Democrat has won a statewide U.S. Senate race since David Boren’s last re-election in 1990. National political handicappers have all categorized the seat as safe for Republicans.
Coburn announced in January that he would forego the last two years of his term, and the race this year is for those two years only.