The Washington Post

In Oklahoma Senate race, establishment Republicans battling far-right conservatives

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) has jumped into the race to replace Sen. Tom Coburn. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The race to replace one of the Senate’s most iconic conservatives has quickly become the latest battle between establishment Republicans and far-right activists craving more ideological purity in the party.

Just days after Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) announced that he will retire at the end of the year, the Sooner State’s GOP has split into factions that are all too familiar to national Republicans. Rep. James Lankford, 45, whom senior House Republicans consider a rising star, jumped into the race Monday, and later that day Rep. Jim Bridenstine, 38, announced that he is considering a challenge, with much encouragement from conservative groups not content with Lankford. State House Speaker T.W. Shannon formed an exploratory committee Tuesday to begin raising money for a potential bid as a staunch-conservative alternative to Lankford.

The Oklahoma race is unlikely to determine control of the Senate, as a Democrat has not won a Senate race there since 1988, and Democrats are not even making a show of trying to win. Instead, the campaign is shaping up as a symbolic battle to determine which conservative is worthy of succeeding Coburn, whose legacy is as complicated as it is conservative.

“We’d love to be able to support a candidate that would mirror Senator Coburn’s pro-taxpayer record,” Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth, said in a statement critiquing Lankford for a voting record that is less conservative than Coburn’s. A local tea party activist echoed that sentiment Tuesday.

“Lankford’s liberal votes show us that he is not the person to carry the conservative mantle long held by Dr. Coburn,” said David Tackett of Oklahomans for Liberty.

Lankford supporters, however, note that Coburn has not been a go-it-alone partisan in the Senate. Lankford, who holds a junior post among elected House GOP leaders, said he plans to make the race about his accomplishments, rather than who can shout loudest at President Obama.

“Conservatives have increasingly grown more and more frustrated and caustic when we should grow more committed and more focused,” he said Monday during his campaign announcement.

Some longtime Republicans are suggesting that this is an internal Oklahoma dispute that does not fit the long-running feud among competing wings of the national GOP, warning outside groups that all the potential nominees are sufficiently conservative.

“Let’s not mischaracterize these guys because we’ve got a national drama going on,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who was once Shannon’s boss and is close to Lankford.

Coburn, who has prostate cancer and is retiring two years before his second term ends, has declined to endorse a candidate.

In some ways, the 65-year-old Republican is the godfather of the modern conservative, austerity movement. To some conservatives, replacing Coburn in the Senate will be akin to replacing Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

He was cast as a gadfly by establishment Republicans who rallied around then-Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys in the primary, warning that nominating Coburn would put the seat at risk in the general election. Coburn trounced Humphreys, with big support from the Club for Growth, arguably the group’s first major victory, and then won the general election.

But within months of taking office, Coburn was agitating Republicans as much as Democrats. He had an epic showdown with the Senate’s most esteemed Republican, the late Ted Stevens, over a little-known bridge project in Alaska. At a time when lawmakers considered earmarks — special funding for home-state pet projects — almost a God-given right, Coburn lost his bid to kill the project on an 82 to 15 vote.

Less than two years later, Coburn’s effort to nix the “Bridge to Nowhere” was successful, and by 2010 the earmark practice disappeared from the landscape. Every year he publishes a book of wasteful projects. After Republicans won back the House in 2010, many GOP conservatives drafted amendments to slash spending modeled on Coburn’s work.

Some of those votes — which were symbolic because the Democratic-controlled Senate opposed the House draft — are now being used against Lankford. His record of voting with the Club for Growth is 78 percent, which places him among the top third of conservatives who side with the group on key issues, but he is far from Coburn’s career 96 percent Club for Growth rating.

That Lankford faces questions about his conservative bona fides is a testament to how much the conservative movement has changed in the decade since Coburn’s upset win in the Oklahoma primary. Like Coburn, Lankford has a citizen-legislator background. His first race for political office was in 2010, after a career spent running a Christian youth camp that went on missions to destinations such as Belize and Malawi.

Bridenstine is a Navy reservist who flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and ran an air and space museum in Tulsa before entering the 2012 primary against a longtime incumbent. He won.

Bridenstine’s first vote in the House was to oppose John A. Boehner’s bid for a second term as speaker; he has continued to steer a very conservative path ever since.

That political dynamic — Lankford attends leadership meetings and votes with those lawmakers, while Bridenstine is an outsider who votes against them — seems to have as much to do with the opposition to Lankford from conservative groups as any political or ideological differences.

Some of Coburn’s biggest fights in recent years have been with the ideological warriors who trumpeted his arrival in the Senate.

In those 2011 talks with Democrats, Coburn endorsed plans to raise taxes and pass entitlement reforms to carve about $4 trillion out of the national debt. He fought bitterly with Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform made anti-tax pledges a defining piece of being a conservative.

In October, as outside groups promoted the government shutdown strategy to try to knock out funding for Obama’s health-care law, Coburn had a public falling-out with that crowd. He accused the groups, particularly the Senate Conservatives Fund, of advocating a strategy that was doomed to fail.

In one TV appearance, he described the group as having a “short-term goal with lousy tactics.” Now, those same groups are fighting to keep the seat in the most conservative hands, and it’s no longer clear where even Coburn fits in the movement.

As he put it in late September, “I’m now no longer a conservative, according to the standards that have been set.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.

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