, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

June 20, 2014

Rising GOP star in Senate primary throwdown

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — It’s not easy to get to the right of U.S. Rep. James Lankford, a staunch conservative from a state that prides itself on being “the reddest of the red.” The Baptist minister and onetime leader of one of the nation’s largest Christian youth camps came to Congress three years ago and has preached a hard-right doctrine heavy on gun rights, abortions and the evils of Obamacare.

Yet Lankford, a rising star in the national GOP, now finds himself fighting for political survival in a primary election for a U.S. Senate seat that may show whether the insurgent shock wave that felled leading Republican Eric Cantor in Virginia extends into this part of the nation’s Republican heartland.

Lankford, 46, is challenged by another conservative, T.W. Shannon, the former speaker of the Oklahoma House. The race, which focuses on Lankford’s role in GOP leadership positions, has drawn advertising money from national conservative organizations and has left even tea party groups confused over whom to support.

National tea party organizations are weighing in for Shannon, but local groups, some of which have backed Lankford in previous races, haven’t chosen sides.

Drawing further attention to the race is the challenger’s ethnicity: Shannon, 36, was the state’s first black speaker of the House and is also Native American.

Five other less-funded Republicans will also be on the ballot next week, along with three Democrats, vying to replace retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican.

Lankford was a political unknown when he won an open seat in Congress in 2010 from Oklahoma City.

Thin, with red hair and a preacher’s booming voice, he leveraged an army of young evangelicals from his Baptist network to propel his campaign, and he’s now counting on them again.

Lankford has been campaigning as he legislates — like a workhorse. He happily delves deep into nuance with voters who ask about complicated federal budget issues or congressional investigations.

But Shannon, a striking presence at 6-foot-4 and impeccably dressed, describes himself as the more conservative and aims to exploit the sliver of room to the right of Lankford, who became the House Republican Policy Committee chairman because of his grasp of GOP issues. For some conservatives, that raises the specter of a Washington insider.

A particular target of pro-Shannon ads is Lankford’s votes to increase the nation’s debt limit and to support a bipartisan budget agreement.

Lankford defended those votes as the result of hard-fought battles with a Democratic Senate and president.

Shannon climbed the leadership ladder in the state Legislature by cultivating the party’s right wing. As the speaker, he created a special committee to hear proposals for defying the federal government.

Shannon, whose father, a school teacher, is black and a Chickasaw and whose mother is African-American, says there should be nothing unusual about a black or Native American conservative.

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