WASHINGTON — With primary elections only about three weeks away, U.S. Rep. James Lankford would seem to hold a key advantage in the Republican contest to succeed U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn.
That advantage is Oklahoma County.
It’s like Ohio for Republican presidential candidates — no GOP nominee has won the presidency without taking Ohio since Abraham Lincoln.
Since at least 1968, no state candidate of either party has won a U.S. Senate seat or a contested primary for a U.S. Senate seat without carrying Oklahoma County.
Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, has represented most of Oklahoma County in Congress since 2011 and recent polls show him way ahead in the county, along with neighboring counties that aren’t in his congressional district but are in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area and media market.
State Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, and an independent group supporting his candidacy have recently made major television ad time purchases in the Oklahoma City media market hoping to close the gap in the area.
Trebor Worthen, a strategist for Shannon’s campaign, said Friday, “I don't believe there is any county in the state that we don't have a chance to win at this point. Oklahoma County in particular is one where our message resonates with conservative voters. Just like Republicans across the state, they are tired of the increased debt and the increased spending.
“What we have seen in this campaign is that voters have moved dramatically toward T.W. as they have learned more about his conservative record and his vision for America. The first public poll had us trailing Congressman Lankford by 37 points, but the most recent one shows a dead heat. We believe this positive movement toward T.W. will only continue."
The most recent public poll, done for News9/News on 6 had Lankford with only a slight overall edge, but he was up by 40 points in his own congressional district; Shannon had a 26-point lead in the 1st congressional district, which includes Tulsa County.
Polling by the candidates and outside groups providing financial support has also shown Lankford leading in his home area and Shannon leading in Tulsa.
Though some in Shannon’s camp and some neutral political experts have asserted that Shannon could win the nomination without a run-off — necessary if neither candidate gets 50 percent of the vote — that would defy at least four decades of history if Lankford holds his home county as expected.
Veteran pollster Ed Goeas, president and CEO of the Tarrance Group, said the question of Lankford winning Oklahoma County “is not an issue of ‘if’ but rather ‘by how much.’” Because of that, Goeas said, Lankford could win the nomination without a run-off, but Shannon’s best outcome would be forcing a run-off.
Goeas said his polling for Lankford shows him with 70 percent support in his congressional district.
“These numbers have a huge impact on the entire Oklahoma City media market — which represents 54 percent of the statewide Republican Primary vote and where the Congressman is currently ahead by a 2-to-1 margin — as well as an impact on his margin statewide,” Goeas said.
There hasn’t been a competitive U.S. Senate race in Oklahoma since 2004, when Coburn first won his seat.
That year, Coburn’s Republican opponents included former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys and Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony. Though Humphreys and Anthony both called Oklahoma County home, Coburn won the county easily on his way to claiming the nomination. He also won the county in the general election against then-U.S. Rep. Brad Carson.
Perhaps the most analogous situation to the current race was the 1980 race to replace Sen. Henry Bellmon. In the Republican primary, John Zink beat Don Nickles in Tulsa County, but Nickles carried Oklahoma County and won the nomination.
On the Democratic side, Robert S. Kerr Jr. beat Andy Coats in Tulsa County, but Coats won Oklahoma County and the nomination. In the general election that year, Nickles carried Oklahoma County and won the seat.
There is little difference in Republican registration between Oklahoma County (about 172,000 voters) and Tulsa County (166,326), according to recent figures from the state Election Board. Often, the candidates who won Oklahoma County also won other counties in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, which has about 350,000 more people than the Tulsa metropolitan area.
The importance of Oklahoma County — and the metropolitan area — has also been demonstrated in governor’s races.
In the 2010 Republican primary, Mary Fallin lost Tulsa County to Randy Brogdon but won Oklahoma County and the nomination. In the 1990 GOP primary, Vince Orza won Tulsa County handily, but Bill Price won Oklahoma County and the nomination. In the 1990 Democratic primary, Wes Watkins won Tulsa County, but David Walters took Oklahoma County and the nomination.
The candidates and the groups supporting them have not locked up all the June television time they plan to buy. However, figures obtained on Friday show Oklahomans for a Conservative Future, a dark money group supporting Shannon, has bought about $146,000 in air time in the Oklahoma City media market from May 29 through June 8, compared to $69,000 in Tulsa.
No purchase records for Lankford or the dark money group supporting him could be found for June television time.