Senate races

GOP’s internal battle brews in Oklahoma

The special election sparked by Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) impending retirement has opened up a new front in the battle between the conservative grassroots and establishment wings of the GOP.

After Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), one of the House’s most conservative members, announced his candidacy for the Senate seat on Monday, his entrance was met with considerable pushback from national groups who want freshman Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) to run instead. 

{mosads}Now, the ensuing fight has observers scratching their heads, wondering exactly how strict the conservative purity test is and where it will end. 

“When folks like Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and James Lankford are not conservative enough for you, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask what your priorities are,” said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman, who’s often critical of conservative groups’ priorities. 

Walsh’s criticisms echo other national Republicans, who have become increasingly frustrated with the right’s tactics, especially pointing to the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project, Heritage Action and others. After their strategy to defund ObamaCare led to last fall’s government shutdown, many conservative groups see onetime champions — even a staunch earmark opponent like Flake — as insufficient. 

Now, any vote to fund any part of ObamaCare, any tax compromise or debt limit vote is a black mark in their book. 

To conservative groups, an open seat in a red state is just the kind of opportunity they look for to wield outsized influence. Now, they’re urging Bridenstine to run, but House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who’s set to form an exploratory committee, will compete for the same bloc as Bridenstine.

Lankford has been praised in the past for his ability to straddle the line between the conservative and establishment wings of the party. But that might be over for the sophomore congressman as he looks to move onto a bigger political stage after using those skills to ascend to a fifth-ranking position in House leadership. Lankford himself told The Hill on Monday the attacks on his record were “ironic.”

But it’s exactly that willingness to work with the establishment on issues that has conservatives so incensed about his candidacy — and so ready to back an alternative.

“This is so much more of a broader look; it’s pertinent to a lot of races,” said Daniel Horowitz of the Madison Project, which has said it wouldn’t endorse Lankford and would like Bridenstine to jump in the race. 

“More than just how conservative someone is, it’s something different. Congress has a 7 percent approval rating, and everyone agrees that there needs to be a wholesale change. We’re the only ones looking for a fundamental change.”

Horowitz says the group wants to change the culture of Washington by bringing in purists. To do that, they believe only a guy like Bridenstine, who’s willing to buck the establishment — his first vote was to oust John Boehner (R-Ohio) as Speaker — would be successful there.

“It’s a new type of candidate. A new type of ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington,’ not connected to special interests,” Horowitz said. 

The same fight is playing out in races across the nation, where some of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, like Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, are facing conservative primary challengers because they have been open to backing once routine votes like raising the debt ceiling or a budget compromise. 

Conservatives in the state remain staunchly opposed to Lankford, however, and are ramping up pressure on Bridenstine to jump in. A trio of Tea Party-affiliated activists launched a draft effort on Facebook and a website on Monday to draw him into the race.

One leader, David Tackett of Oklahomans for Liberty, said Bridenstine got a “rock star’s welcome” at the state party committee’s conference this weekend, and he had been hearing enthusiastic support for a Bridenstine bid throughout Oklahoma.

But Bridenstine doesn’t have a clear path to the nomination by simply relying on his conservative appeal. Shannon is also better connected to Oklahoma’s political class, sources say, and has a stronger fundraising base in Oklahoma.

And while outside groups could easily make up that difference for Bridenstine, Lance Cargill, a former Oklahoma Republican House speaker who now consults for campaigns, said that could be a “double-edged sword.”

“How does that play with the average Oklahoma voters? If all your messaging is coming from ‘special interests’ in D.C., when you are positioning yourself as the outsider candidate?” Cargill said.

Bridenstine’s supporters admit, as Tackett put it, Shannon would be a “formidable force” in the race. But they say the state lawmaker also seen as too establishment-oriented to pick up the conservative mantle.

“When you look at Speaker Shannon in the Statehouse, he has voted conservative on social issues, but there have been other fiscal issues that he has voted the establishment line on,” Tackett said. 

A three-way primary could give Lankford a better path to the nomination, if Shannon and Bridenstine split the conservative vote. But Cargill said the June primary election is more likely to create an August runoff, if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote.

But Oklahoma political observers agree that the primary will, from the very beginning, be a run to the right.

“With Coburn, you’ve got a truly unique figure in Oklahoma politics. When you’re running for that particular seat, you have to pick up that mantle and carry it forward,” Cargill said.

Tags James Lankford Jim Bridenstine Oklahoma Oklahoma Senate race

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