Oklahoma GOP Turns on Senator for Not Worshipping Trump Enough

·8 min read
Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty
Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty

Jackson Lahmeyer is a 29-year old pastor and political unknown from Tulsa who believes he meets the most important qualification for political service in today’s Republican Party: fealty to Donald Trump.

Lahmeyer also believes Trump should be reinstated as president, wants every state subjected to a full 2020 election audit, and thinks the F.B.I. and “antifa” pushed into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

His primary campaign against Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) has been blessed by a pair of powerful figures from the MAGA fringe—former Trump advisor Michael Flynn and conspiracy-peddling lawyer Lin Wood—and, as of last weekend, the new chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, John Bennett, a former legislator who once notably called for Hillary Clinton’s execution by firing squad.

The stunning endorsement provided a veneer of legitimacy, and a shot in the arm, to an obscure MAGA movement striver who’d been toiling away in a quixotic campaign until now. Lankford, a political fixture in Oklahoma, called Bennett’s move “unheard of,” which is correct—state party chairs hardly ever get involved in primaries. And Lahmeyer agreed with his foe’s assessment. Gleefully.

“It may be unheard of,” Lahmeyer told The Daily Beast, “but there’s a reason the state of Oklahoma is adamantly against James Lankford.”

That assessment is self-serving, but the reason Lahmeyer is on the map at all is one day—Jan. 6—and what Lankford did during and after it.

Ahead of the Senate’s vote to certify President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, Lankford said he would object, joining other Republicans in citing vague and unsupported concerns of election fraud. He would become part of history that day: he was explaining his objections on the Senate floor at the very moment a mob of Trump supporters burst into the U.S. Capitol and was abruptly hurried off to safety. Later that night, Lankford reversed his position and voted to certify the election.

Lankford would go on to oppose Trump’s second impeachment and a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. But that first reversal was enough to light embers of discontent in Oklahoma, which Lahmeyer is now trying to fan to his advantage.

“He embarrassed our state,” Lahmeyer said of Lankford on Jan. 6. “He caved like a coward.”

Time will tell whether Lahmeyer’s sweeping and self-aggrandizing assessment of Oklahoma Republicans’ sentiments is true. Most GOP insiders in the state say he remains a longshot, and that Bennett is representative not of actual voters but of a fringey faction of cranks who have overtaken an increasingly irrelevant state party.

“I have never seen the state party apparatus more disconnected from the voters than it is right now,” said Pat McFerron, a longtime pollster and operative who has been involved in the Oklahoma GOP for decades. “Lankford just has an incredible statewide network. I’m not sure how you crack it.”

Republican Sen. James Lankford: I’ll Step in if Trump Keeps Freezing Biden Transition Team Out

It is true that right now, however, that Lankford finds himself on shakier ground than one might expect of a staunchly conservative senator representing one of the nation’s reddest states. And he is putting that network to use: ahead of Bennett’s endorsement—which in-state observers said was not a surprise—his campaign rolled out dozens and dozens of endorsements from Republicans from state representatives to Gov. Kevin Stitt. A campaign spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

“James is admired and respected for his intellect and his character,” Frank Keating, a former Republican governor of Oklahoma, told The Daily Beast. “Anytime you run for reelection, you have the opportunity to lose, but I don’t see that at all happening to him.”

If Lankford is forced to sweat at all, it’d be another proof point that in the Joe Biden era, the GOP is essentially an apparatus devoted to Trump and, above virtually any other objective, propagating the conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

“You can’t focus on 2024,” said Lahmeyer, reached by The Daily Beast in south Florida, where he said he was taking “big-time” meetings. “You’ve got to fix 2020 first.”

Mike Turner, a former state legislator and a past vice chair of the state GOP, said Oklahoma Republicans were treading into “uncharted political territory.”

“It may be a harbinger of what’s to come,” Turner told The Daily Beast. “Lankford isn’t in trouble this cycle. But are these folks going to be an irritant? Absolutely.”

Lankford is just one of a growing number of elected Republicans under fire at home for their perceived lack of support for the ex-president’s efforts to cling to power. The handful of lawmakers who voted to impeach Trump are all facing legitimate primary challenges, and even those who didn’t, like Lankford, are under the MAGA crowd’s microscope, examined for any deviations from the orthodoxy.

And just like it is in other states—Wyoming, for example—the ferment of the anti-incumbent effort is rooted in wild conspiracies and fringe characters that are now playing outsized roles in Republican politics. Lahmeyer’s most prominent endorsement, before Bennett, was that of Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who has since become a hero to the far right, and Wood, the Georgia lawyer and leading promoter of the Big Lie who has made endorsements against other so-called RINOs, like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY).

Flynn traveled to Oklahoma last month to fundraise and headline a rally for Lahmeyer. And in April, Lahmeyer spoke at the Health and Freedom Conference, a Tulsa conference that featured a confluence of COVID-19 misinformation, the QAnon conspiracy, and hardcore evangelical Republicanism. He made his case against Lankford on the same stage where Wood spoke of “millions” of children who disappeared worldwide and devil worship, both clear nods to QAnon.

Asked whether he believed in QAnon, Lahmeyer told The Daily Beast, “I don’t know anything about it… at the end of the day, I don’t care.”

Oklahoma is a unique stage for this particular battle of the broader civil war engulfing the GOP. The Sooner State is one of the reddest in the country, only one of two where Trump carried every county in both 2016 and 2020. Republicans have supermajorities in the legislature and hold every statewide office.

Their dominance is so complete that observers say that the state party has atrophied, turning on itself in the absence of real competition from Democrats. “You end up getting a very extreme group,” said McFerron.

Bennett, to many, is emblematic of that dynamic. The current GOP chair formerly served in the state legislature, where he made a name for himself as one of the nation’s leading proponents of Islamophobia—he once said Muslim-Americans were the same as ISIS—and was an early endorser of Trump’s 2016 campaign.

In 2021, Bennett was perfectly placed to ride a wave of conspiracy-laced pro-Trump sentiment to chair the state party, promising to purge the ranks of so-called RINOs. “I’m here for one reason, one reason only, and that is to do the job that the people elected me to do—and that is to stand and fight for our constitutional republic and to get rid of those that refuse to do it,” he told The Oklahoman newspaper in explaining his endorsement of Lahmeyer.

But Lankford, who Lahmeyer calls “Oklahoma’s Mitt Romney,” might only look like a RINO from the far-right fringe.

He has a lifetime rating of 82 percent from the conservative Heritage Foundation—less than the average Republican senator, but far higher than Romney and slightly higher than Oklahoma’s arch-conservative senior senator, James Inhofe. He is one of the most anti-abortion Republicans in Congress, a fiscal hawk, and voted against most of Biden’s Cabinet selections.

The senator’s critics insist there are more reasons beyond Jan. 6 why he deserves to be sent home. Even if they can’t really explain them. Asked what his other issues with Lankford are, Lahmeyer cited his support of making Juneteenth a national holiday to commemorate the end of slavery, in place of Columbus Day. “He’s known as Senator Juneteenth,” he said. “In Oklahoma, that’s not a compliment.”

Warren Hamilton, a GOP state senator who’s one of a few incumbents not to have endorsed Lankford, pointed to the senator’s support for renaming military bases currently named for Confederate generals. Oklahoma has none. But Hamilton reiterated his biggest issue was “Mr. Lankford’s conduct in light of the 2020 presidential election.”

Puzzlingly, Bennett insisted he was endorsing Lahmeyer in his personal capacity as a citizen and not as state chairman—a nonsensical distinction. The Oklahoma GOP did not respond to questions about whether official party resources would go toward supporting Lahmeyer, but some Oklahoma Republicans felt that Bennett’s endorsement invites the question.

Lankford is set to face more heat at home: several county-level GOP organizations are endorsing his opponent, and Bennett has queued up a resolution to formally censure Lankford. Lahmeyer, meanwhile, said he’s actively courting Trump’s endorsement for the race.

Though Lankford’s allies are confident about his standing, the recent history of the GOP is littered with powerful figures who were seen as invincible only to be brought down by unheralded challengers.

“We’re not foaming at the mouth,” said Hamilton. “We just decided, this is it, and you guys have been telling us one thing and doing another for too long. What’s gonna happen now is we’re gonna show up and vote, and it’s gonna be for someone that ain’t you.”

—with reporting from Will Sommer

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.