WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. James Lankford easily claimed the Republican nomination Tuesday for the Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, overcoming a flood of outside money and capitalizing on a late intervention by Coburn on his behalf to win the GOP primary.
In the most closely watched political race in the state this year, Lankford, of Oklahoma City, beat state Rep. T.W. Shannon, of Lawton, and five other Republicans and avoided an August runoff. With all the precincts counted, Lankford had a landslide margin of 57 percent to Shannon’s 34 percent.
Lankord, a two-term congressman and former Baptist youth camp director, will be the favorite in the fall.
At his Oklahoma City victory party, Lankford thanked God, his family, his supporters, Shannon and Coburn.
“There was not an inch of Oklahoma that I traveled to in the last five months that people didn’t look at me and say, ‘OK, I’m glad to talk to you about this, but I’m really sad Dr. Coburn is leaving.’
“And I said to each of them, ‘We are, too.’ The legacy that he has laid down for our state and for our nation is a long shadow. And those are not shoes we can possibly fill but is a responsibility we have to be able to take on.”
Lankford said the nation faces serious problems at home and abroad.
“To solve those problems, we’re going to have to take on some serious work,” he said. “But I do believe that conservative solutions will work in every neighborhood, in every town, in every city, among every ethnicity.”
In the Democratic primary for Coburn’s seat, state Sen. Connie Johnson, of Oklahoma City, and perennial candidate Jim Rogers, of Midwest City, are headed to a runoff Aug. 26. There is one independent on the ballot.
The winner will serve the final two years of Coburn’s term. Coburn announced in January that he would retire at the end of the current congressional session.
Inhofe gets 88%
In the other U.S. Senate race, Sen. Jim Inhofe, of Tulsa, easily won the Republican nomination with 88 percent of the vote and will face Democrat Matt Silverstein and three independents in the general election. Inhofe, first elected to the Senate in 1994, likely will cruise to another term in November, the month he turns 80.
“Serving the people of Oklahoma in the United States Senate is an honor I do not take lightly,” said Inhofe, one of the most conservative members of the Senate.
“As we move toward the general election, I look forward to an issue-oriented campaign with my general election opponents. Voters want and deserve a substantive discussion on the challenges and opportunities facing our state and nation.”
Lankford vs. Shannon
Lankford, 44, and Shannon, 36, both claimed to be the true conservative candidate in the race to succeed Coburn, with Shannon charging that Lankford’s two votes to raise the debt ceiling proved Lankford wasn’t serious about balancing the budget. Lankford countered that balancing the budget would take time, and that posturing on debt ceiling votes was effectively vowing to shut down the government.
The popular Coburn kept his pledge not to endorse a candidate in the race, though his strong praise for Lankford and harsh criticism of negative advertisements seemed ready-made for the Lankford ads and mailers that followed. Coburn also called out the negative ads against Shannon, but without the attendant praise of Shannon’s hard work and integrity.
Lankford has a statewide network of support built from his 13 years running the biggest youth camp in the nation, Falls Creek, and from guest preaching at Baptist churches across the state. That network helped him come from nowhere in 2010 to win the congressional seat against well-known and better-financed candidates who had state legislative experience.
The charismatic Shannon — a member of the Chickasaw Nation who served a year as speaker of the Oklahoma House — had the early backing of national tea party heroes like Sarah Palin and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Their appearance in Tulsa gave Shannon some attention and momentum. However, the leaders of Oklahoma tea party groups didn’t support Shannon or Lankford, deeming them both less conservative than they claimed.
At his watch party in Oklahoma City, Shannon said, “Obviously, we’re disappointed with the result, but at the end of the day, I’m not disappointed with Oklahoma’s representation. I do believe (Lankford) is going to do a great job representing us, as he’s done in the past.”
The young lawmaker, who has caught the attention of national Republicans looking for more diversity in the party, said he hasn’t though about his next political race.
“We haven’t thought that far. ... What we’re going to do right now is make sure other candidates we believe in get through,” he said.
“There will be enough time to think about other elections.”
Besides the early appearance by Palin, Shannon’s most visible support came in the form of television ads from a dark money group called Oklahomans for a Conservative Future. The group — which does not report its donors — got into some early trouble when its main operative, Oklahoma City lobbyist Chad Alexander, was arrested on drug charges.
After the group’s positive ads for Shannon turned negative, showing Lankford side-by-side with President Barack Obama and accusing him of supporting Obamacare, Coburn spoke out in Lankford’s defense, marking what may have been the turning point in the race.
Lankford actually may have been helped by the negative ads against him, since they offended many who knew him — and other Republicans who don’t like intraparty mudslinging — and led Coburn to intervene.
Oklahomans for a Conservative Future reported spending about $1.3 million for Shannon, while the Senate Conservatives Fund, based in the Washington area, spent $360,000 for him.
Shannon’s own criticism was much milder and focused only on Lankford’s debt ceiling votes. Lankford never mentioned Shannon in an ad, and at joint appearances, the two men were always civil to each other.
There also was a dark money group — Foundation for Economic Prosperity — backing Lankford, but it spent far less money and seemed far less relevant.
That group failed to report all of its expenditures and was even more secretive than the group backing Shannon.
Contributing: Staff writers Nolan Clay and Jonathon Sutton