TULSA, Okla. (AP) — After five terms in Congress, Republican U.S. Rep. John Sullivan thought he knew how to campaign for his northeastern Oklahoma seat by heart, until this year's primary election fight against political newcomer Jim Bridenstine changed everything.
The Tulsa congressman had become accustomed to winning big, mowing down his past three general election challengers with 77 percent, 66 percent and 64 percent of the vote with minimal heavy lifting.
But going up against tea party-backed Bridenstine has caused more headaches for Sullivan than he bargained for.
"I never had a race like this in all my life," Sullivan told The Associated Press from Washington, as he prepared to jump on a flight back to Oklahoma for a last-minute campaign push ahead of Tuesday's primary to decide who will be the Republican nominee representing Oklahoma's 1st congressional district. "The only mistake I made was I ignored it for too long."
In the past several weeks, Sullivan and Bridenstine have squabbled over who is the most conservative choice to represent the district that includes the city of Tulsa. Bridenstine, a Navy pilot, has tried to paint Sullivan as a career politician who has become out of touch with working-class Oklahomans because he voted for things like bailouts, debt ceiling increases and "government takeovers."
"We are at a precipice in our country; we really have a crisis on our hands," Bridenstine said in an interview. "But (Sullivan) is entirely focused on himself and retaining his position. It's entirely self-centered."
Bridenstine has tried to run to the right of his opponent — a feat because of Sullivan's claim that he's the most conservative member of Oklahoma's congressional delegation — by knocking him on his 2009 stay at the Betty Ford Center in California to treat alcoholism and his missing hundreds of votes since he's been in office.
Bridenstine's campaign claims Sullivan has missed 679 of 7,650 votes in the past decade — which is 9 percent and much higher than the 2.4 percent median of missed votes among lawmakers. And last week, he said Sullivan's history of "substance abuse" made him unfit to hold the office.
"When you look at the character of a man you have to look at performance and capability," Bridenstine said. "I have a record of always going to work and always completing my missions.
"There's a pattern of behavior from our incumbent congressman that continues. It's a pattern of not going to work, a pattern of campaigning in a reckless manner with untruths," he said.
Sullivan has owned his record of missed votes, saying he missed time because of the stay in rehab and the death of one of his children.
"I just think it's unfortunate he'd stoop to that level because he doesn't want to own up to his past failures," Sullivan said. "If he wants to use that against me, that's his problem.
"I never picked this fight. He's been running a campaign for over two years with negative, negative, negative," he said.
Sullivan's counterattack in the past two weeks has been what his campaign has called the "mismanagement" of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum while Bridenstine served as its executive director from December 2008 to August 2010. Tax forms showed that the museum took on losses under his leadership — nearly $383,000 in 2009 and 2010. Bridenstine has defended the red ink because he was trying to attract a retired NASA shuttle for the facility.
Sullivan has seized upon the financials, claiming that if Bridenstine couldn't manage the museum's books, how can he be trusted to manage billions of dollars in taxpayer money in Washington?
"He has no room to go on so he has to make things up," Sullivan said. "All I ask is that I be judged on my record of accomplishment."
That record includes voting 34 times to cut trillions of dollars in spending, fighting for an "all of the above" energy policy to preserve the 300,000 jobs in Oklahoma tied to the industry, and cracking down on illegal immigration by helping bring two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices to his district, Sullivan says.
Tuesday's winner will face Democrat John Olson, the owner of a small business, and independent Craig Allen, an airline pilot, who will be on the 1st District ballot in November.
Statewide, three of Oklahoma's four incumbent Republican congressmen face challenges within their own party, with only Rep. James Lankford facing no primary opponent this month.
Incumbents nationally also are facing strong challenges. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., lost in a GOP primary last month and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, faces a June 26 primary after failing to receive enough votes from delegates at his state convention in April.