Tom Coburn’s Potential Replacements Jockey for His Mantle

Both Republican candidates seeking to replace the popular Oklahoma senator are laying claim to his legacy as they woo primary voters.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) walks through the Capitol Building on October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. The government has been shut down for 14 days.
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
June 19, 2014, 1:06 a.m.

While con­ser­vat­ives in some states are try­ing to boot in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­ans from of­fice this year, folks in Ok­lahoma are look­ing for more of what they already have.

Sen. Tom Coburn’s sur­prise re­tire­ment has left the two main Re­pub­lic­ans vy­ing for his seat scram­bling to define them­selves be­fore the June 24 primary. To do so, both sides are lean­ing on com­par­is­ons to the man they seek to suc­ceed.

“What this race is com­ing down to is a ques­tion of, ‘What would Coburn do?’ ” Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Bill Shapard said of the con­test between Rep. James Lank­ford and former state House speak­er T.W. Shan­non. Shapard, who’s in the midst of con­duct­ing new polling on the race, said GOP re­spond­ents have shown enorm­ous re­spect for Coburn — as well as a strong de­sire to main­tain his leg­acy. Voters he spoke with over­whelm­ingly in­dic­ated it was im­port­ant that their new sen­at­or “vote like Tom Coburn,” the poll­ster said.

But just what it is Coburn would do is a tough ques­tion giv­en the sen­at­or’s oc­ca­sion­al un­pre­dict­ab­il­ity. Both cam­paigns have laid claim to key ele­ments of Coburn’s philo­sophy.

Shan­non’s cam­paign points to their can­did­ate’s debt-re­du­cing re­cord in the state House as a mir­ror to Coburn’s “Dr. No” repu­ta­tion in the Sen­ate.

“Coburn is a de­fi­cit hawk,” Shan­non spokes­man Ken­neth Brick­er said. “T.W. helped bal­ance the state budget here. His greatest achieve­ments are turn­ing away bond-in­debted is­sues, wel­fare re­form, work­ers-com­pens­a­tion re­form, and sev­er­al tax-cut­ting meas­ures.”

Brick­er said Lank­ford’s re­cord of vot­ing with party lead­er­ship on is­sues such as the Ry­an/Mur­ray budget deal was a sharp con­trast to Coburn’s.

For Lank­ford’s part, his cam­paign can point to a state­ment Coburn put out con­demning out­side groups for back­ing Shan­non in the race. In a let­ter that some saw as a pseudo-en­dorse­ment, Coburn lauded Lank­ford’s ded­ic­a­tion to fed­er­al over­sight, say­ing he had come to know Lank­ford as a “man of ab­so­lute in­teg­rity” who has “fought an of­ten lonely battle against the status quo.”

Both sides po­litely re­spon­ded to the let­ter, point­ing out that “like Coburn,” they had de­nounced neg­at­ive ads when they first ap­peared. (Lank­ford also sent a second email “re­af­firm­ing” his op­pos­i­tion to neg­at­ive ads — re­mind­ing voters about Coburn’s flat­ter­ing let­ter all the while.)

The real­ity of filling Coburn’s shoes would be de­mand­ing for either can­did­ate. Polit­ic­al watch­ers still re­mem­ber former Flor­ida Gov. Charlie Crist’s em­brace of Pres­id­ent Obama in 2009, which Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents used to sav­age him in a Sen­ate primary the next year, but the hug Coburn and Obama shared, and the friend­ship they touted, was nev­er a polit­ic­al li­ab­il­ity for the Ok­laho­man. Polit­ic­al ex­perts in the state say no can­did­ate in this race could pull off the nu­anced role Coburn learned to play over his many years in the polit­ic­al arena.

“The real­ity is when Coburn talks philo­soph­ic­ally about fisc­al is­sues, he sounds like T.W. Shan­non. When he acts, he looks like James Lank­ford,” said Uni­versity of Ok­lahoma polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or Keith Gad­die. “But Coburn has al­ways been cap­able of get­ting a pass be­cause he can come out and say, ‘Well, prac­tic­ally speak­ing we have to do this stuff.’ “

Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an Party Chair­man Dave We­st­on said the state’s rev­er­ence for Coburn is rooted in the sen­at­or’s in­teg­rity.

“They re­spect his char­ac­ter first and fore­most, in that they may not al­ways agree with him but they can al­ways un­der­stand where he’s at and knows he has a good heart with good in­ten­tions,” We­st­on said. “The biggest leg­acy that Sen. Coburn leaves is the num­ber of in­di­vidu­als that he has in­spired to run for of­fice,” he ad­ded.

Though the race is ex­pec­ted to go to an Au­gust primary run­off, Coburn’s timely dip in­to the con­test has many won­der­ing just what he meant to ac­com­plish, and wheth­er he might do more to as­sist Lank­ford.

“He’s very se­lect­ive about what he does, but if he comes in­to a state Sen­ate primary and drops a let­ter on someone’s be­half, that’s the end of the con­test,” Gad­die said. Gad­die noted that a statewide race was very dif­fer­ent from the state Sen­ate, but said the in­flu­ence of a Coburn en­dorse­ment shouldn’t be un­der­es­tim­ated. “At the grass­roots level it res­on­ates,” he said. “It be­comes the basis for a fly­er in the pa­pers, on cars on Sunday at the churches. It’s a huge sig­nal for a lot of move­ment con­ser­vat­ives and evan­gel­ic­als that this is their guy.”

Shapard said voters he’d polled were already draw­ing con­nec­tions from Coburn’s let­ter, largely in­dic­at­ing they be­lieved Lank­ford was the “most sim­il­ar” can­did­ate. Shapard said it’s not a con­clu­sion he shares per­son­ally. But it’s one that could be crit­ic­ally im­port­ant to the Ok­lahoma Sen­ate race.

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