James Lankford's success in Oklahoma isn't the tea party's loss

The Sooner State primary race wasn't as simple as insurgents vs. the establishment

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Former Oklahoma House Speaker Shannon and Congressman Lankford participate in the U.S. Senate debate in Tulsa in this file photo
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Former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon (L) and Congressman James Lankford participate in the U.S. Senate debate in Tulsa, Oklahoma in this file photo from June 18, 2014. In staunchly conservative Oklahoma, polls show Lankford, a former leader of a massive Christian youth camp, slightly ahead of Shannon in the race for Senate seat in a Republican primary that has exposed rifts within the tea party branch of the Republican Party. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

Some of the leading lights of never-back-down conservatism such as Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin and Mike Lee didn't get their way in Oklahoma on Tuesday night when Rep. James Lankford defeated State Rep. T.W. Shannon in the GOP U.S. Senate primary race there.

But that doesn't mean "the establishment" dodged some kind of tea party coup.

Lankford avoided a run-off after winning more than 50 percent of the vote in a crowded primary. In a state as red as Oklahoma, it is highly unlikely that a Democrat will take the seat in November, making Lankford a virtual shoo-in for the seat this fall.

Yet unlike recent high-profile GOP races in Virginia and Mississippi, the Sooner State primary race wasn’t really a skirmish in the broader Republican civll war.

Both of the front-runners in the Oklahoma contest had solidly conservative records, but they each had a pragmatic streak, too. Lankford is a 46-year-old two-term congressman who joined the Republican House leadership last year when he became chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. Shannon, 36, an African-American with Native American heritage, has been a state legislator since 2007 and was elected to the top spot in the state house in 2013.

From the time Republican Senator Tom Coburn announced last year that he would not seek re-election in December due to health concerns, Lankford and Shannon built campaigns in warp speed to replace him. Lankford began with a strong lead in the polls, but Shannon closed much of the polling gap with Lankford in the final weeks before Tuesday’s primary.

Both had help from outside groups that poured money and resources into the race. The Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, national tea party groups that traditionally fund insurgent candidates on the right, ran ads for Shannon. Cruz, Palin and former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts the first black Republican congressman elected in the South since Reconstruction spoke out on his behalf.

In Lankford's corner, a group called the Foundation for Economic Prosperity, Inc. spent nearly $130,000 praising the lawmaker. And before Tuesday’s primary, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee endorsed him.

Mainstream Republicans affiliated with the race and Oklahoma politics, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole and Coburn remained publicly neutral but will now allign behind Lankford in his quest for the seat.

On the issues, Shannon and Lankford held many of the same positions, although both campaigns worked to showcase their own conservatism and lay out how they would govern. Shannon, for example, criticized Lankford for voting twice to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, a position Lankford defended as a rational act necessary for governing the country. The two sparred over the issue at a recent debate.

“You’re never going to get out of debt if you keep borrowing,” Shannon argued, saying that he would not vote to raise the debt limit if elected. “The problem is politicians who continue to increase debt.”

Lankford, who sits on the House Budget Committee, countered: “This is one of those things that look really good on a bumper sticker, but in real-life terms, when you’re dealing with a federal budget as large and complicated as the federal budget, there are hard decisions where you say, do you shut down the economy or do you try to find a way to get out of this hole.”

In the final days of the campaign, Shannon also knocked Lankford for his support of a bill to provide a pathway to legal status for children of undocumented immigrants.

But despite the effort to out-conservative Lankford — and despite his endorsement from hard-liner Ted Cruz — Shannon still shared Lankford's understanding of the importance of compromise and pragmatism. Republicans watching the race didn’t see Shannon as a Cruz clone opposed to negotiation, and they pointed to his record as state house speaker as evidence.

“I think you can be pragmatic and be principled too,” Shannon told the Tulsa World in an interview last year, sounding very unlike Ted Cruz. “I have some conservative principles that I try to adhere to, but at the end of the day, the people deserve a government that works. I don’t think that there’s a dichotomy there. I think you can be principled and pragmatic. I don’t think they’re incongruent at all.”

More recently, Shannon had praised the value of reaching consensus on legislation, an attribute few of the tea party candidates seem interested in embracing when they come to Washington. When asked at a recent debate how he differs from Coburn, Shannon touted his success in Tulsa and vowed to replicate that in the U.S. capital.

“As speaker of the house, we got a lot of things done,” Shannon said at the time. “We actually reduced the size of government. It’s much more difficult in Washington, D.C., but Dr. Coburn admits he’s even had challenges. I think where I can be different is building coalitions to help people agree with us to convince people why we’re right on the issues.”

The results of the race also underscore, on a national level, how difficult it is for black candidates to win statewide races. Today, there are only two African-Americans in the Senate and not a single black governor. Had Shannon made it to a runoff Tuesday and prevailed in August, he would have been the third black senator currently serving in the chamber and the first ever from Oklahoma. Although Shannon rarely discussed the topic of race unless a reporter or supporter broached the subject, his heritage would have been a boon for Republicans as the party seeks inroads with minorities.

WIth Tuesday's results, Republicans won't have that talking point, but they'll still have a conservative in the office.

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