TULSA, Okla. – A brisk Oklahoma breeze and cheap campaign supplies set Republican U.S. Senate candidate T.W. Shannon up for a solid campaign punchline at the opening of his Tulsa campaign office on Tax Day, April 15.
“You can see that the name tags we have aren’t very good ones because we need more money for this campaign,” said Shannon, a state representative, eliciting laughter and maybe donations from a crowd of about 60.
Many in the crowd were seen chasing their campaign-issued name tags around the office parking lot. The pesky Tulsa wind effected another campaign prop too, occasionally knocking over a small sign with three photos on it: one of Shannon, the others of two of his most prominent endorsers, Sarah Palin and talk radio host Mark Levin.
Shannon, who was elected to the Oklahoma House in 2006, is running to replace U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn.
Shannon, who was named a “Rising Star” last year by the Republican National Committee, is viewed as the tea party candidate. His main opponent in the Republican primary — the only race that matters in this reddest of states — 46 year-old Congressman James Lankford.
So far, Shannon has the support of conservative heavyweights. Besides Palin and Levin, this group includes Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and RedState’s Erick Erickson.
Shannon also has the Republican political operative Fount Holland, who runs AH Strategies. The communications director for then-Congressman Coburn in the 1990s, Holland has focused on putting candidates into state House and Senate races. In 2004 he helped orchestrate a GOP takeover of the Oklahoma legislature, which had until then been controlled by Democrats. Trebor Worthen, of AH Strategies, is Shannon’s campaign manager.
“He’s got the machine behind him in which to be able then run a successful campaign with the limited amount of time Dr. Coburn gave us all,” Bill Shapard, who runs Sooner Polling, an independent polling firm, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. He added that he expected 2014 to be an otherwise sleepy political year in Oklahoma.
Shannon, who, along with his wife Devon, operates the consulting firm Shannon Strategies, once worked for U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, with whom Shannon shares Chickasaw heritage. He also worked for former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, the first black Republican from south of the Mason Dixon line elected to the House since Reconstruction.
For his part, Shannon was the first black Republican lawmaker to attain the position of Speaker in any state house. And if he wins in June and November he’ll be the first Southern black Republican since Reconstruction to win a Senate election.
“My heritage is part of who I am,” Shannon told TheDNCF when asked about the significance of such milestones. “But it’s not the way I define myself or see the world.”
“I’m an American first, and just like everybody else, Americans are concerned about a Washington D.C. establishment that refuses to listen.”
Shannon pinpointed three main areas of focus.
“What I’m hearing around the state of Oklahoma is the debt,” he said. “That’s the number one issue.”
Next are national defense and energy.
“Our friends don’t trust us and our enemies don’t fear us,” he said. On the positive side of the ledger, he added, “I think we’re on the verge of being energy independent.”
“We will be the first generation of Americans to allow our children to inherit a lower standard of living, and frankly that’s just not acceptable from the greatest nation known in the history of man,” said Shannon, who has two young children, a son and a daughter.
At least one Tulsa attendee found Shannon’s future-time orientation appealing.
“Our generation will bear the burden of tackling the debt,” said Kellen Curry, a young conservative blogger at Millennial Elephants.
“Future leaders of limited government can come from anywhere,” he said, adding “those in and coming from state houses have a unique and first hand experience in the federal government’s encroachment.”
An example of that which Shannon cites on the campaign trail is his opposition to Medicaid expansion as House speaker.
That doesn’t mean the primary will be easy. A self-described “skinny redhead,” his opponent Lankford is still relatively new to politics. He parlayed his years spent as director of the nation’s largest Christian summer camp, Falls Creek Baptist in Davis, Okla., into a a House seat in the 2010 elections. He represents the 5th district, which mostly covers Oklahoma City.
Lankford has been a rising star in his own right, attaining the rank of chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. That makes him the fifth-most ranking member of the House GOP, a sniff away from House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“His attention turned to top leadership,” Shapard told TheDCNF. In his Republican Policy Committee role, Lankford works behind the scenes to facilitate policy directives between leadership and the rank-and-file.
“He didn’t spend the time trying to cultivate the relationships in the Oklahoma political community that it would take to run a statewide race,” Shapard said.
Lankford has the backing of many religious conservatives and has been endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Both intrastate and interstate rivalries may play a part too.
“This race will be won or lost at either end of the Turner Turnpike,” said Shapard, noting the turnpike’s bookends of Oklahoma City in the center of the state and Tulsa in the northeast.
“I think T.W. will spend a lot of time in Tulsa and nurture that note,” he added. “He’ll be able to say ‘I’m not from Oklahoma City’, which I think is really critical to winning that Tulsa vote.”
Jim Inhofe, the state’s other senator, is the only recent politician to bridge the Turner Turnpike divide, having won his Senate spot despite being a former mayor of Tulsa, which has a more Eastern feel to it than the more Western Oklahoma City.
Chris Wilson of WPA Research, discounts the OKC-Tulsa rivalry, but says that focusing heavily on Tulsa is a smart move for Shannon.
“I think it’s more about fishing where the fish are right now—just more undecideds in Tulsa,” Wilson told the DCNF. “Once he locks down Northwest Oklahoma – and he’s already locked down Southwest Oklahoma – he’s got Lankford on both flanks and charges into his home territory.”
Wilson thinks Lankford’s alma mater, the University of Texas, will pose a problem.
“You heard it here first,” said Wilson, citing a poll conducted by his firm which found that 80 percent of Oklahomans support the University of Oklahoma, bitter rivals of Lankford’s school.
Lankford’s votes on the Ryan-Murray spending bill in December drew concern from Tea Party-alighned conservatives like the Madison Project, and his coziness with House leadership has troubled some.
Shannon has been criticized for focusing too much on his senate campaign to the detriment of his House duties. But that criticism did not seem to affect his pitch in Tulsa.
“If God were to give me but four months to live I’d want to spend them in the House of Representatives because they’re usually the longest four months of my life,” said Shannon, in a noticeable Southern drawl.
An internal Lankford poll from early February had their man at 47 and Shannon at 17.
Polls conducted by Public Opinion Strategies — which was contracted by the pro-Shannon group Oklahomans for a Conservative Future – show a large swing in favor of Shannon. In April, 42 percent of poll respondents backed Shannon, 32 percent supported Lankford and former state Sen. Randy Brogdon took 7 percent.
The group’s March poll had Lankford at 37 percent, Shannon at 28 percent and Brogdon at 7 percent.
If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election will be held Aug. 26.
Ted Cruz, the man who gave Shannon one of his biggest endorsements, won his primary in a runoff.
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