Lankford swats critics on right

Greg Nash

Shortly after jumping into the race to replace retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) dismissed conservative criticism of his candidacy as “just Washington, D.C., stuff” and said he isn’t concerned about their impact on his chances in the race.

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“The different Washington, D.C.-based groups and the different special interest groups, they all want to be able to pick who they want to be a senator. They don’t speak for everyone, and they definitely don’t speak for Oklahomans,” he told The Hill in an interview on Monday.

Lankford announced Monday afternoon that he’d jump into the special election sparked by Coburn’s Thursday announcement that he’ll step down at the end of this year. He is already taking flak from national conservative groups, who have attacked him for his votes for the budget deal and to raise the debt ceiling, among others.

He’s likely to face a conservative primary challenge. Both Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon are looking at the race, and would vie for the conservative mantle if they ran.

But Lankford stood by his vote for the budget deal, which eased some of the sequestration cuts to the Defense budget and other programs, as a vote “in favor of strong national defense.”

He suggested attacking him for that vote was an example of the way groups opposed to his candidacy “will loop votes together and try to say that they are something that they are not … that’s the Washington, D.C. game.”

And he dismissed the charge from those outside groups that he’s not conservative enough.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it, that one day you’re one of the most conservative members, and then some individual gets mad at you, and they decide to throw millions of dollars against you, because you didn’t vote exactly the way they want every day,” he said.

Lankford said it was just that absolutist mindset that had caused problems within the GOP in recent years.

“That’s the cause of some of the basic problems that we deal with as a Republican Party, when a small group decides that they want to make sure that every member votes exactly like they want rather than represent their district at home,” he said.

But the conservative groups see otherwise. They charge that Lankford, as Republican Policy Committee chairman and fifth-ranking member of House GOP leadership, is a part of the Washington establishment and, thus, part of the problem.

One group, the Madison Project, called Lankford “a quintessential status quo Republican” and charged he’s “served as a conduit for Boehner and Cantor, supporting their debt ceiling increases and funding for Obamacare in budget bills, thereby obviating one of the reasons for Republicans controlling the U.S. House.”

Lankford laughed off the suggestion that he might be a part of the Washington insider culture he criticized.

“I’ve been in Washington all of three years. I’ve never been in politics ever in the past. And to try to throw an accusation in Oklahoma, to the people that know me, that suddenly I’m establishment, when I’ve never been involved in politics, and what I have tried to do is to do the best I can to be able to begin to solve the issues is odd to me, to say the least,” he said.

He characterized his work as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee as “engaging with leadership one-on-one to try to push our conference towards the most conservative possible solution,” and slammed the criticism from conservative groups as simply obstructionist.

“It leaves the perception that you shouldn’t try to work to solve problems; you should just throw stones like some of these groups do, and that’s suddenly more conservative. I just don’t believe that being conservative means all you do is throw stones and poke people in the eye. I believe that being conservative means you try to get in to the middle of the fight and try to solve the problem,” he said.

His position as policy committee chairman gives him decidedly more influence over the policymaking process than he’d have if he were elected to replace Coburn in the Senate, where seniority is supreme.

Asked why he’d want to give up his position in the House, which some have said has put him on a path to the Speakership, he gave a characteristically wonky answer, suggesting that being in the Senate would give him the researching capabilities he feels are needed to tackle issues.

“What Dr. Coburn has been able to do with his Back in Black plan and the Wastebook is because of his staff structure and his ability to be able to assign a significant number of staff to be able to do research. We’re not able to do that in the House. We don’t have the staff capabilities to be able to do that,” he said.

“To work to solve problems and to work on, how do we resolve these issues, it’s much easier to do that through the Senate staff structure than the House staff structure.”

Lankford said in particular, he wants to use the Senate staff structure to investigate waste, government fraud and further the goal of becoming energy independent.

He declined to comment on who in the Oklahoma congressional delegation might support his bid, though The Hill reported Friday he might get the backing of Coburn himself. And he declined to discuss any other potential challengers or the amount he plans to raise for his bid.

But he positioned himself in the race as a problem solver, as opposed to just a conservative noisemaker.

“My main focus is on trying to solve the problems that we face. Rather than talking about the problems or complaining about problems, trying to solve them,” he said.

He also said the Senate is the "battleground" for some of the nation's biggest policy fights, and a seat there would give him a better opportunity to move conservative solutions forward than he has in the House.

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