Courtesy image / Greg Nash

National conservatives still see hope for an upset victory in the Oklahoma Senate race, but they might need an overtime campaign to get the win. 

The June 24 primary election between Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon (R) has taken a bitter turn in the final few weeks, and observers in the state speculate that’s not an accident. 

Left with ground to make up, Shannon’s only hope might be to try and force an August runoff for the chance to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). There, the outcome for Lankford would be murkier, and Shannon could ultimately have a better shot, especially when conservative groups could focus their efforts solely on Oklahoma after the Mississippi runoff is decided. 

A Negative Air 

Dave Weston, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said the negativity in the race was the buzz in Oklahoma when he met with donors Tuesday morning.

“I think there is a predisposition to dislike negative ads,” he said. “I had three donor meetings this morning, and that was the hot topic. They say, ‘Look, I wanna hear why they’re running for this. I’m smart enough to make that decision on my own; they don’t need to make it for me.’ ”

A pro-Shannon super-PAC, Oklahomans for a Conservative Future, was the first in the race to launch a negative attack ad, charging that Lankford voted for “the Obama budget” by raising the debt ceiling. 

Shannon followed soon with his own spot, in which he turns Lankford’s own ad against him and also criticizes Lankford for increasing the debt. 

The former Speaker’s campaign is dismissive of the idea that its strategy could backfire. The campaign points to Shannon’s request for the outside groups to stay away from negativity as evidence he’s kept a distance from any potential backlash.

“My desire is for third party groups to keep their advertising focused on issues, not personal attacks and innuendo,” Shannon said in a statement after the attack ad launched.

And his team sees his ad as more of a contrast spot with a largely positive message.

But look no further than Coburn for an indication of whether the new tone could be a problem. In the halls of the Capitol, he told The Hill he was dismayed by the turn the race had taken.

“I think that’s unfortunate,” Coburn said when asked about the attacks. “The fact is that I don’t like it, and I’ve expressed it to both of the candidates.”

Lankford’s team says the congressman has given express directions not to take things in a negative direction.

But that’s likely, in part, because he has the luxury to avoid doing so. The two-term congressman entered the race better known, has run a better-funded campaign and has a stronger base of support in all-important Oklahoma County, which is essential to a win.

Lankford’s pollster Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group told The Oklahoman that a win in the vast Oklahoma City area “is not an issue of ‘if’ but rather ‘by how much,’ ” and his polling shows Lankford taking 70 percent of the vote in his home district.

But if Shannon can keep Lankford’s margins down there, he has a better shot of making it to a runoff, likely part of the reason he and his allies are running the contrast ads.

But multiple sources confirmed to The Hill that Shannon has obtained private polling that shows him in a dead heat in the race. And a third candidate, former state Sen. Randy Brogdon, is picking up anywhere from 2 percent to 6 percent in most polling, which would force a runoff if those numbers hold.

And that’s where the race could truly shift.

Spending shift

Lankford has spent and raised the most in the race. Through the end of March, he spent more than $680,000 and still had $1 million in the bank. That’s compared with Shannon, who had raised $305,000 and spent just over $500,000. 

Outside spending in the race has topped $1.17 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with the vast majority of that — about $973,000 — being spent by groups backing Shannon.

But despite picking up the early endorsements of a number of national conservative groups, they’ve largely sat the primary out, aside from the Senate Conservatives Fund, which spent less than $30,000 on online advertising for Shannon.

That’s, in part, because their attention has been elsewhere: in Mississippi, where Sen. Thad Cochran (R) faces a chance of being knocked off in a primary runoff.

It’s unlikely that the national conservative groups would get involved until after the primary — coincidentally, on the same day as the Mississippi Senate runoff — so any outside spending that might have put him over the edge, or driven up Lankford’s negatives, will have to come afterward, if Shannon makes it that far. 

There, one national operative with Oklahoma political experience said, those groups could do real damage to Lankford’s image.

“I think it’s the only thing that would really shift the momentum, is if they come in and do a sort of a scorched earth campaign against Lankford,” the source said. “He’s had too many bad votes.”

Runoff would crystallize the narrative

But the narrative that Lankford’s detractors and Shannon’s supporters have started to push isn’t so clear-cut.

Like a number of other competitive GOP primaries this cycle, the lines between conservative and establishment are murky.

While Shannon’s framed himself as the conservative candidate in the race, and Lankford’s taken fire for his debt-limit votes and his position in and willingness to work with leadership, both have strains of conservative and establishment experience running through their candidacies.

Lankford is one of the most conservative members of the House. And was once lauded by conservatives in Washington for building bridges with House GOP leadership and effectively working to pull policy to the right.

Though Shannon’s been endorsed by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lankford recently picked up the backing of House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

And Shannon’s got his own ties to the political establishment in the state, having worked for Rep. Tom Cole (R), the dean of the Oklahoma delegation, and drawn the backing of some big-name establishment donors.

Indeed, a handful of local conservative groups penned a letter pushing back against Shannon after he picked up some of those national conservative endorsements, bristling at the suggestion that D.C. organizations would tell Oklahoma conservatives who to support.

One Oklahoma operative described Shannon as more in the vein of Joni Ernst, the newly-minted GOP nominee for Senate in Iowa, or Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican Senate nominee, both of whom drew conservative and establishment backing, but also who both won.

Those details would be more vigorously debated in a runoff. And the candidates’ records would draw closer scrutiny as well.

Lankford’s critics pointed to the House Oversight Committee member’s initial refusal to support a select committee to investigate the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, as a core issue for him in a runoff, while Shannon’s detractors pointed to his initial opposition to a measure repealing the Common Core education standard in Oklahoma, a red-meat issue for conservatives.

But none of those storylines have yet been probed, so most Oklahoma political observers said a runoff would be anybody’s game.

“I think the jury’s still out on who will win then,” Weston said.

Tags James Lankford Oklahoma Road to the Senate T.W. Shannon
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