Former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon has risen in the state’s GOP Senate primary almost as quickly as he rose to national prominence within the national party.
Shannon trails early front-runner Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), by just 9 percentage points in a survey conducted by a group supporting his bid.
Plus, the part-African-American, part-Native American Republican has racked up endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and the Senate Conservatives Fund. Lankford has the backing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) to help bolster his social conservative credentials.
The polling and endorsements, one Oklahoma GOP insider in contact with the congressman’s staff told The Hill, has Lankford’s team concerned.
“I do know that they’re nervous because they’re seeing the poll numbers close in on him,” the source said.
But Lankford told The Hill on Wednesday that he’s not worried, as his internals show “something very different” — and suggested the narrative that Shannon is on the rise is merely spin from his campaign.
“They are masters at spin, and they make me laugh at some of the things that they step out and say. Because they go out, and they try to create a perception that’s not actually reality, and I understand what they’re trying to accomplish. The political game says you don’t have to actually go for the facts; you have to actually go for the spin,” he said in the halls of the Capitol.
Still, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, Lankford said, that Shannon would begin to close the gap. He’s had the state’s airwaves to himself for the past two months, airing two positive spots, while an outside group launched another in his favor as well.
Lankford hasn’t gone up with his own buy, and an outside group only just launched advertising for the candidate starting Friday.
While the move was welcomed by Lankford, it has some of his detractors suggesting it was made out of concern at the tightening numbers.
One of Shannon’s biggest assets at this point might be his compelling heritage. That unique profile inspired the support of at least one major Republican donor, as the GOP looks to expand its appeal. In 2013, he was named a “Rising Star” by the Republican National Committee.
“What we’re finding plays well with voters in the state is — they want someone new and fresh and bold, someone who stands out and has a solid conservative record,” said Shannon adviser Trebor Worthen. “[Shannon] looks different; he sounds different, and he’s a fantastic communicator with a record of uniting our party here in Oklahoma. Those are all things that just connect really well with Republican voters.”
Coupled with Lankford’s connections to House GOP leadership — he’s the Republican Policy Committee chairman — that appeal has made Shannon a more attractive candidate for conservatives.
And Lankford’s personal style could also be contributing to his campaign’s stall, multiple Oklahoma political observers suggested.
The sophomore congressman is known as a deliberate decisionmaker, which could cause the slow pace of his campaign.
“Lankford’s very meticulous and very thought out. He puts a lot of thought into his decisions, and because of that thought and that time, it can be viewed as hesitation,” one Oklahoma insider said.
While that strategy’s earned him plaudits as a policy wonk in Congress, it might not work in a fast-paced Senate campaign — especially not when Lankford might have the most to lose in the June 24 primary.
With a third candidate in the race, former state Sen. Randy Brogdon, there’s a high likelihood that the primary will head to an August runoff. There, Oklahoma political observers say, Shannon might have the edge, though Lankford disputes that.
Lankford has indeed indicated a jumpstart is in works, announcing a handful of top hires this week. According to details shared first with The Hill, Lankford has brought on Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group as his pollster, John Brabender of Brabender Cox for his media, Tyler Harber of Harden Global for his national and online communications and Glenn Coffee of Coffee and Associates as legal counsel.
But staffers won’t be enough to win a race that’s expected to further tighten in the coming months. While the candidates themselves are loathe to go negative, their teams admit that turn is unavoidable.
Lankford’s experience in GOP leadership is perhaps his biggest liability, including some contentious votes he’s taken, like one in 2011 to raise the debt limit, or in favor of the Ryan-Murray budget deal (though he ultimately opposed the budget that emerged from it).
Much of Shannon’s agenda as state Speaker was stymied by the state’s Supreme Court before he resigned.
Shannon’s detractors point to that, and in particular, a critical editorial in The Oklahoman from May of last year that charged much of Shannon’s esteem within the national GOP was due to his “personal appeal and his potential — not on his actual record.”
Indeed, Lankford referenced a report that Shannon has missed a majority of votes in the state House since launching his campaign as evidence Oklahomans might be unhappy with Shannon failing to do his job. And he hinted at a narrative that he might try to establish in the race — that of a substantive policymaker up against a career politician.
“My focus will stay on the issues that I’m working on, what I’m trying to get accomplished,” he said. “Shannon has a longtime political background, he’s been in politics his entire life, and so he’s very, very good at politics. ... I have no doubt that at the end of the day, he’ll have great political quotes and great political consultants who can do all those things.”
The relative sleepiness of the campaign will change fast, Oklahoma political observers say, heading into the final two months of the primary.
“The gloves’ll come off at the end. They’ll have to draw contrasts. You’ll have outside players that are going to, unfortunately, probably try to bloody the candidates,” said Lance Cargill, a former GOP Oklahoma House speaker who now consults for campaigns.
“Election Day’s fast approaching, so it might be a pretty nasty 60 days,” Cargill added.