Republican Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma made his Senate bid official Monday, and conservative groups are already pushing back.
Lankford announced his run in Oklahoma City for the seat held by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who is retiring at the end of his term. "After a great deal of thought, prayer, and discussion with my family, I feel led to continue my Oklahoma common sense and principled approach to attack the deep problems in the United States Senate," Lankford said.
Even before Lankford's official announcement, the Senate Conservatives Fund said it will not back him, citing his votes on the debt limit and the recent budget deal, which didn't include provisions to defund Obamacare.
"We won't support Congressman Lankford's bid for the Senate because of his past votes to increase the debt limit, raise taxes, and fund Obamacare," SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins said in a statement. "We have reviewed his record, and it's clear that conservatives cannot count on him to fight for their principles."
Club For Growth likewise didn't sing Lankford's praises. Spokesman Barney Keller cited Coburn's 96 percent rating on Club for Growth's congressional scorecard. "On the other hand, Congressman Lankford has a lifetime 78 percent, which is obviously substantially different from a score in the 90s," Keller said. "We'd love to be able to support a candidate that would mirror Senator Coburn's pro-taxpayer record."
That candidate could be Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who upset Republican incumbent John Sullivan in 2012 and earned the only House endorsement from SCF. "Our members in Oklahoma would love to see Jim Bridenstine run for the Senate," Matt Hoskins said. "He has a strong, conservative record in the House, and he's someone people can trust to fight for their principles."
As conservative groups courted Bridenstine on Monday, his campaign committee issued a statement saying that he "is honored by the number of people, statewide and nationally, encouraging him to run for the Senate seat, but he is not inclined to rush the decision."
State House Speaker T.W. Shannon is another potential candidate. Rep. Tom Cole and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt both announced they won't seek Coburn's seat. Cole cited his seniority, position as deputy whip, and various committee roles as reasons why he opted against a run, saying such positions "make me much more valuable to Oklahoma and the Fourth District in the House than I could be as a freshman U.S. senator."
An endorsement from Coburn himself could be huge in the primary race. Coburn spokesman John Hart says, "It isn't likely Dr. Coburn will formally endorse anyone but may support a candidate in his capacity as a citizen."
Lankford, who first made it to the House after winning in a seven-way primary, serves as Republican Policy Committee chairman and ranks fifth in House GOP leadership.
Lankford's move is not surprising given the ambition that propelled his rapid ascent to House leadership in only his second term in Congress. But the soft-spoken Oklahoman is hardly a political animal. He spent more than a decade as a Christian camp director before feeling God "calling" him to run for Congress, and he explained in a National Journal interview earlier this year that he ran for Republican Policy chairman only because he felt his modest workload as a rank-and-file lawmaker didn't justify moving away from his family.
"While I'm here, I want it to count. I don't want to go home and tell my wife and my girls, 'I was gone last week because I had to do a press release,' " Lankford said.
That said, policy work was a natural fit for the wonkish Lankford, a self-described pragmatist who obsesses over policy details but admits to being politically naive. Such political inexperience could complicate his Senate bid, especially if other members of the Oklahoma delegation are competing for Coburn's seat. When he sought out his leadership position, Lankford said, he had to consult his fellow Oklahoman Cole to guide him through the internal politics of Capitol Hill.
Still, Lankford has the unique ability to straddle two political worlds: the grassroots realm populated by those Christian conservatives who supported his House bid in 2010, and the establishment wing that respects Lankford's pragmatism and loyalty to House Speaker John Boehner since joining his team last January. Such a diverse base of support should make Lankford the candidate to beat, regardless of whether his competition comes from Washington or Oklahoma.