TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Political newcomer Jim Bridenstine used marathon campaigning and a potent assault on his opponent's past demons to engineer his stunning win over five-term incumbent U.S. Rep. John Sullivan in Tuesday's primary election.
In the final weeks heading into the vote, Bridenstine was able to frame the debate against Sullivan in a way none of the Republican congressman's political opponents was able to pull off in more than 10 years.
After highlighting Sullivan votes that Bridenstine said weren't conservative enough for Oklahoma, as the election drew close, the challenger brought up Sullivan's battle with alcoholism, his 679 missed votes in the House and a series of arrests more than two decades ago.
"The issue here is all about representation," Bridenstine said Wednesday, defending his all-encompassing campaign, which took 54 percent of the vote to Sullivan's 46 percent.
"We framed everything from, 'Hey, we were hiring a guy to go to work for us, and he's not acting that way," said Bridenstine, a Navy pilot who had tea party backing. "I think there was a difference. We did everything we could to have a debate and discuss the issues and he didn't seem willing to do that, I think, because he underestimated us, and that happens in politics a lot these days."
Sullivan, who did not return a request seeking comment Wednesday, acknowledged his past struggles with substance abuse and explained that he missed votes while at the Betty Ford Center in 2009 to treat his addiction and after the death of his infant daughter in 2003.
The incumbent defended votes on government bailouts, such as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act in 2008, made as the country struggled to emerge from a recession. He also resented the late assault on his character, made when Bridenstine charged that Sullivan's "history of arrests, absenteeism, substance abuse and aggressive behavior" required that voters drive him from office.
"Less than a week before the election? I mean come on," Sullivan said last week. "I've always been up front and honest about everything."
He said his personal battles have "made me a better husband, father, man."