For Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the conservative cause isn’t about volume.
There are far louder and more colorful characters in the majority-making House Republican class of 2010, but few have risen up the ranks as quickly as the longtime Christian camp director from Oklahoma.
With a direct but low-key style, Lankford has ingratiated himself both with senior leaders and the restive rank and file of the Republican conference, winning a seat at the leadership table — as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee — after just a single term.
Over the last year, Lankford has served as a go-between in the House, giving the often unruly right flank of the conference a voice at the top while staying close to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his team.
“He’s the guy that everybody trusts. Inside the class [of 2010], he’s kind of an honest broker,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), another leadership ally who passed on the Senate race.
Lankford is a down-the-line conservative who is deeply critical of President Obama and staunchly opposes abortion rights, gun control, gay marriage and tax increases. But unlike some of the 87 Republicans elected in the wave election of 2010, he has not sought to stand out with headline-grabbing denunciations either of Obama or his own leadership.
“James governs his tongue as opposed to his tongue governing him,” said Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), a fellow sophomore who sits with Lankford in the GOP leadership. “In this line of work, that’s served him well.”
Lankford, 45, flashes a dry and occasionally self-deprecating sense of humor, often joking to a crowd that his deep baritone voice hardly matches up with his slight frame and bright red hair.
After leading the nation’s largest youth camp for 14 years, he won the first election he entered in 2010, beating two opponents from the state legislature who were better funded. Two years later, he proved deft at the game of musical chairs that emerged when a spot in party leadership came open. While more senior colleagues battled for the posts of chairman and vice chairman, he slid into the Policy Committee spot before anyone else could make a competing claim.
Lankford does not keep a close circle of confidants in the House, colleagues say. Unlike many lawmakers who congregate with the same group of friends each day during floor votes, he is constantly moving about the chamber, checking in and kibitzing with colleagues.
Yet Lankford’s internal success in navigating between the establishment and the Tea Party might not win him points in a competitive Senate primary. His record on important fiscal votes is scattered. He voted with the GOP leadership in favor of lifting the debt ceiling as part of the Budget Control Act in 2011 and the No Budget, No Pay Act in 2013. But Lankford voted against reopening the government and raising the debt limit in October, and while he supported the budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in December, he opposed the recent omnibus spending bill guided by that pact.
That mixed voting record means he’s far from the preferred choice of fiscally conservative groups like the Club for Growth. The Senate Conservatives Fund, which said “conservatives cannot count on [Lankford] to fight for their principles” after his announcement, is instead trying to recruit freshman Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R) to carry the Tea Party mantle in the race.
Bridenstine won his House seat in 2012 after defeating a five-term Republican incumbent, John Sullivan, in a primary. His first vote on the floor was to oppose Boehner’s reelection as Speaker.
If there is a consistent strain to Lankford’s thinking, colleagues say. It is one that embraces the House leadership’s philosophy of pocketing small victories where possible, rather than holding out for a conservative sweep unlikely to come in divided government.
“He doesn’t view it as capitulation, if you’ve moved toward your goal, even if you don’t get there in a single step,” Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said.
Ribble suggested Lankford’s contemplative demeanor might even be misplaced in the more reactive lower chamber.
“I actually think James is more suited for the Senate than the House,” Ribble said.
In an interview, Lankford defended both his style and his record, and he said his differences with the conservative groups opposing him were about tone more than substance.
“At times, conservatives become defined by their volume rather than by their ideas,” he said. “My focus has always been: I can be an incredibly conservative, principled idea person, but that doesn’t mean I have to shout at people.”
Lankford isn’t saying whether he’d seek to pursue a similar path to the leadership if he makes it to the Senate. Asked to name the senators he’d seek to emulate, Lankford cited two from outside the top circle: first-term Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and the retiring Coburn, who earned the moniker of “Dr. No” after frequently holding up spending bills early in his tenure.
And Lankford has little to say about Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the would-be majority leader, if Republicans gain six seats in November. McConnell is facing competitive challenges both from the right and the left, and Lankford wouldn’t assess his record as leader or say whether he would vote for him a year from now.
“I don’t know him,” he said. “We’ve met each other in the hallway, I think, at one point. But I don’t know him and couldn’t begin to evaluate that.”
Of course, Lankford has to make it to the other side of the Capitol first. And that is no sure thing in a primary that could become crowded, with Bridenstine and Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon still weighing bids. In deep-red Oklahoma, the winner of the GOP primary in June, or the likely runoff in August, is expected to walk into the seat in November.
Without a clear field, Lankford’s decision to jump into the race is a risk. With the special election primary being held concurrently with the election for all federal offices, Lankford will have to give up his House seat, win or lose.
Lankford will likely face another rising GOP star in Shannon, the 35-year-old head of the state’s House of Representatives who has formed an exploratory committee to raise money for the race and is expected to be in D.C. next week for meetings. Shannon would become the second black member of the Senate Republican Conference and is also a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
Cole, who is close to both contenders and is staying neutral in the race for now, called Shannon a “tremendous political talent.”
“These two are going to put a lot of Republicans in Oklahoma in a tough spot,” said Cole.