Oklahoma’s Oh-So-Sweet Primary

The candidates are worried about outside groups’ ads, but they’re doing too little to differentiate themselves.

No, after you: Rep. James Lankford (left) and former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon.
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
June 11, 2014, 5:28 p.m.

For a state known for its red dirt, there’s not much mud be­ing slung in Ok­lahoma right now.

Com­pared to Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies this cycle in Neb­raska and Mis­sis­sippi, the race to re­place Sen. Tom Coburn is a down­right pil­low fight. As in most Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies, the dif­fer­ences between the can­did­ates are subtle at best. But in Ok­lahoma, the cam­paigns’ hes­it­ance to play hard­ball is mak­ing what little con­trast there is hard for voters to find.

Ok­laho­mans didn’t see a neg­at­ive TV ad between Rep. James Lank­ford and former state House Speak­er T.W. Shan­non un­til three weeks be­fore the June 24 primary, when the pro-Shan­non group Ok­laho­mans for a Con­ser­vat­ive Fu­ture took a light hit at Lank­ford for his votes to raise the debt ceil­ing. Even then, the can­did­ates’ com­ments about the move were al­most un­ten­ably po­lite.

“As broth­ers in Christ, Con­gress­man Lank­ford and I are com­pet­it­ors, not en­emies,” Shan­non’s cam­paign said in a state­ment, al­most apo­lo­giz­ing for the group’s ad.

“Re­pub­lic­ans do not like dis­tor­ted neg­at­ive at­tacks on oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans,” Lank­ford’s cam­paign re­spon­ded. “This type of cam­paign­ing is not the tra­di­tion of the sen­at­or we are run­ning to re­place.”

Re­pub­lic­ans in the state agree that ads from out­side groups should be clear and fac­tu­al, but at this point, they might be a good way to help make points the can­did­ates them­selves aren’t get­ting at.

“I can’t see any­thing wrong with a few more ads point­ing out the dif­fer­ences between these two can­did­ates,” Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Bill Shapard said of the race. “There are some real dif­fer­ences between them, as Shan­non touched on in his first ad, and voters need to have that made clear.”

Just over two weeks out from the primary, Shan­non has run one con­trast ad from his cam­paign, and Lank­ford hasn’t run any. The race is largely ex­pec­ted to go in­to an Au­gust run­off, but judging by the re­ac­tions from cam­paigns thus far, both sides have a lot of tough­en­ing up to do between now and then.

Asked why the race had stayed largely pos­it­ive for so long, both sides were sur­prised by the ques­tion, and de­scribed what they be­lieved to already be a knock­down, drag-out fight.

“You can be the judge on who went neg­at­ive first, but just look at the New York Times art­icle,” a Shan­non con­sult­ant chided, in ref­er­ence to a May race pro­file by Jonath­an Mar­tin. “[Lank­ford] goes around re­fer­ring to [Shan­non] as a ‘celebrity’ and say­ing ‘we don’t need politi­cians who give good speeches.’ It’s a veiled com­par­is­on to Obama!”

Lank­ford’s cam­paign was out­raged that Shan­non hadn’t done enough to con­demn the ad from his out­side group. Though Shan­non’s email asked groups not to place his op­pon­ent next to Pres­id­ent Obama in ads, Lank­ford’s cam­paign sug­ges­ted that the use of the words “Obama budget” to de­scribe the bi­par­tis­an budget from Rep. Paul Ry­an and Sen. Patty Mur­ray was an un­fair, “shame­ful” at­tack that went un­ad­dressed in Shan­non’s “late” and “gra­tu­it­ous” email.

The reas­on the cam­paigns have thus far stayed clean is com­plic­ated. When Coburn an­nounced his re­tire­ment in Janu­ary, the news gave both Lank­ford and Shan­non a late start on build­ing up their in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing fun­drais­ing.

“Tom Coburn hurt their cam­paign timelines, they needed more time to up their pos­it­ives be­fore go­ing neg­at­ive,” Shapard said. He scoffed at the cam­paigns’ com­plaints about neg­at­iv­ity. “Polit­ics is a con­tact sport. For Lank­ford to say it’s a neg­at­ive at­tack “¦ wel­come to the party, pal.”

But ac­cord­ing to a re­port from The Hill, can­did­ates aren’t the only ones who be­lieve the race has already gone neg­at­ive. Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an Party Chair­man Dave We­st­on said the race’s tone was already a hot top­ic among donors, most of whom were look­ing for ways to nip it in the bud while still draw­ing a con­trast between can­did­ates.

Ok­lahoma polit­ic­al con­sult­ant Pat Mc­Fer­ron, who is work­ing for Shan­non in the cam­paign, said part of the hol­dup in go­ing neg­at­ive was due to the state’s re­l­at­ive shift in polit­ics. Though Ok­lahoma is con­sidered solidly red, he said the Re­pub­lic­an Party was still “learn­ing how to be a ma­jor­ity party.”

“People for­get our state Sen­ate, un­til four years ago, had been con­trolled by Demo­crats for our en­tire state­hood,” Mc­Fer­ron said. “This is the most sig­ni­fic­ant race we’ve prob­ably had in our state’s his­tory that is really de­cided in the primary. We still have a be­lief and struc­ture here that you can’t beat someone up too much be­fore the gen­er­al elec­tion.”

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans say the cam­paigns’ hands are tied when speak­ing to an ex­tremely re­li­gious base. One con­sult­ant es­tim­ated about “70 per­cent of [Re­pub­lic­an primary] voters at­tend church every Sunday.”

“Right now they’re play­ing nice be­cause they don’t have to do their own dirty work,” Shapard said, in ref­er­ence to the out­side groups back­ing both can­did­ates.

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