A Republican Senate primary has yielded yet another intraparty feud pitting grassroots conservatives against national political strategists.
But in Oklahoma, where Republicans head to the polls Tuesday to nominate a successor to conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, local Tea Party groups aren't angry at the National Republican Senatorial Committee -- or any GOP official in Washington. Rather, they're furious with national Tea Party figures and organizations, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and the Senate Conservatives Fund, based in Washington, for meddling in their primary and anointing the so-called “real conservative.”
The national Tea Party groups are backing state Rep. T.W. Shannon, who recently stepped down as speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives to focus on his Senate campaign. Cruz even cut a pro-Shannon television ad for the Senate Conservatives Fund.
The Oklahoma Tea Party groups are ticked -- both because they appear to prefer Shannon's main competitor, Rep. James Lankford, and because their national counterparts didn't consult them before choosing sides. Sooner State voters are somewhat unique in their suspicion of out-of-state political forces. Still, the clash is notable considering that Washington's Tea Party establishment has complained for years that the GOP should stay out of primaries and allow the grassroots to choose its standard-bearer.
“We continue to stand firm that T.W. is not the conservative in this race. Outside endorsements from the Senate Conservatives Fund, Governor [Sarah] Palin, Senators Cruz and [Mike] Lee [of Utah] as well as others are at odds with many of the Tea Party and Grassroots Liberty organizations in Oklahoma,” three-dozen conservative activists wrote in a June 19 open letter to the “D.C. Tea Party Establishment.”
Shannon, in a statement emailed to the Washington Examiner by his campaign, countered that the letter, "which has been recycled a few times, is old news. The 38 individuals who signed the most recent version of that letter are obviously supporting another candidate in the race. Many tea party folks are also supporting my campaign. The tea party, by its very nature, is a movement, not an organization and those who signed the letter you mention are 'self appointed leaders' who represent only themselves."
Shannon, 36, is a charismatic African American who previously worked for Rep. Tom Cole and former Rep. J.C. Watts, both Oklahoma Republicans. Although hardly a political outsider, Shannon has received a flurry of endorsements from Washington’s conservative groups and a national Tea Party establishment that often rails against what it deems the insider ruling class. Shannon’s backers include American Conservative Union, Citizens United, GOPAC, FreedomWorks, conservative talk radio host Mark Levin and RedState's Erick Erickson.
Perhaps overshadowed by Tuesday's Republican Senate primary runoff in Mississippi, Shannon has been battling Lankford for months in a competitive race in a multi-candidate primary that will head to an Aug. 26 runoff if the winner doesn't garner 50 percent. Despite the battle lines drawn over who is more conservative, Oklahoma Republican insiders, including those who have picked sides, say that Lankford and Shannon are equally stalwart and would likely have similar Senate voting records.
Lankford, 46, is the House Republican Policy Committee chairman, and as such a member of the much-maligned House GOP leadership team. But the congressman, who entered politics only four years ago to launch his maiden congressional bid, has a few key advantages.
He had an existing statewide network prior to running for Senate; his home base, Oklahoma City, is the state’s population hub, largest media market and home to the most GOP primary voters; and he has strong connections to the state’s influential evangelical community as the former director of one of the nation’s largest Christian youth camps. Coburn hasn’t endorsed, but he has criticized negative ads targeting Lankford, and the open assumption is that he favors the congressman, who is similar to him in demeanor.
“The candidates that are running in this race are all extremely conservative,” Lankford told the Washington Examiner during a recent interview. “There is no moderate candidate versus conservative candidate.”
Lankford’s analysis echoed that of several Oklahoma Republicans interviewed for this story, who described the contest as a race between two formidable conservatives that could ultimately boil down to “which one do you like?” Legislative experience and problem-solving skills, also are likely to figure into voters' decisions, these Republicans say. In that regard, the two candidates' resumes read similarly.
Shannon is boosted by his ability to run as a Washington outsider at a time when Congress’ approval ratings are in the single digits. He has a strong base of support in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s No. 2 population center and media market; and sources in the state say he is receiving help from Cole’s well-connected and experienced political network. The two are members of the same Indian tribe.
Cole, who called Shannon a “very exciting candidate,” is neutral in the race. “It’s an agonizing choice,” he said. “At the end of the day, people are having a fairly hard time making up their mind.”
Coburn is retiring at year's end, two years before his term was due to expire in 2016. Oklahoma is solid conservative territory, and the winner of the GOP primary is considered a shoo-in to be elected to succeed him on Nov. 4.