Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma Makes Senate Bid Official

Rep. James Lankford talks to reporters while flanked by his fellow house republican freshman about an extension to the payroll tax cuts, in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.
National Journal
Tim Alberta and Elahe Izadi
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Tim Alberta and Elahe Izadi
Jan. 20, 2014, 9 a.m.

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.

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