The tea party-backed Jim Bridenstine scored a huge upset in 2012 by knocking off 10-year veteran Rep. John Sullivan in the GOP primary. In the conservative district, Bridenstine’s general-election victory was almost a mere formality.
The son of an accountant and a schoolteacher, Bridenstine was born in Ann Arbor, Mich. At age 4, he moved with his family to Arlington, Texas. When he was in high school, the family relocated again and settled in Jenks, a suburb of Tulsa, Okla. He began swimming competitively at age 12, went on to become captain of the Jenks High School swim team, and was named Oklahoma’s “Swimmer of the Year.” He attended Rice University in Houston on a partial swimming scholarship. But a shoulder injury forced him to leave the sport after his sophomore year, and he turned his focus to academics, triple-majoring in business administration, economics, and psychology.
After graduating from Rice in 1998, he joined the Navy and became a pilot of the E-2 Hawkeye, an airborne command and control plane. As a naval officer, he served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, flying combat missions and logging more than 1,900 flight hours. He transitioned to flying the F-18 Hornet with the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center in Nevada in 2004. During that time, he bought a small ranch in Nevada and began to raise alpacas, a small South American mammal that resembles a llama and produces fur used for knitted and woven items.
After leaving active duty in 2007, Bridenstine and his wife, Michelle, moved to Orlando, Fla., where he worked at defense consulting firm Wyle Laboratories. Simultaneously, he earned his M.B.A. from Cornell University, flying to New York every other weekend for classes. In 2008, Bridenstine and his family moved back to Tulsa, where he became the director of the city’s Air and Space Museum. In that role, he was credited with increasing museum attendance through programs that he initiated.
In September 2011, Bridenstine launched his long-shot primary campaign for Sullivan’s House seat. The incumbent had a very conservative voting record and had clocked at least 60 percent of the vote in his prior three reelection campaigns. Bridenstine painted Sullivan as an out-of-touch, career politician with a proclivity for missing votes. Sullivan had been admitted to a rehabilitation center to be treated for alcoholism after the death of his daughter, which he said explained his missed votes.
Sullivan accused Bridenstine of operating the Tulsa Air and Space Museum at a loss and putting it in financial jeopardy, a charge Bridenstine disputed, saying that his project to bring a space shuttle to the museum was a secure venture that raised the museum’s visibility. Sullivan outspent Bridenstine by 4-to-1, amassing $990,000 to Bridenstine’s $244,000. But Bridenstine won, 53 percent to 46 percent.
“So many things came together in a perfect storm,” he said in an interview. “I think the electorate was looking for viable candidates who would oppose incumbents.” In the general election, Bridenstine easily dispatched Democratic businessman John Olson. A strong believer in term limits, Bridenstine has vowed to serve no more than three terms in the House.
Jessica Miller contributed to this article.