Oklahoma Congressman James Lankford Easily Defeats Tea Party Backed Challenger

James Lankford, Jordan Lankford, Hannah Lankford, Cindy Lankford

With Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn retiring at the end of this year, this year’s battle for the GOP nomination to fill the remainder of his term served as yet another proxy battle in the war between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party that has taken shape inside the GOP over the past year. On one said was Congressman John Lankford, a conservative who had the backing of most of the GOP establishment both inside and outside the Sooner State. On the other was T.W. Shannon, an African-American Republican with family ties to the Chickasaw ties, who had the backing of Tea Party groups along with people like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. For the most part, the question in yesterday’s election was whether Shannon would be able to garner enough of the vote to force a runoff election, much like Cruz did in his battle two years ago with David Dewhurst. As it turned out, though, Lankford was able to win easily and pick up an nomination that essentially guarantees that he will be the next Senator from Oklahoma:

Rep. James Lankford won the Oklahoma Senate GOP nomination outright on Tuesday over primary opponent T.W. Shannon, despite polls for most of the race showing the two locked in a tight race and headed to an expected August runoff.

Lankford received 56 percent of the vote – well over the 50-percent threshold need to avoid the runoff, while Shannon received 36 percent, according to the Associated Press, with 74 percent of precincts reporting. Former state Sen. Randy Brogdon received 4 percent and the rest of the candidates received roughly 4 percent combined.

Shannon’s failure to push the race to a runoff is a blow to prominent conservative groups, who invested $1.7 million into the race but mostly focused on the Mississippi Senate runoff in the closing weeks.

The former state House speaker, who is biracial — an African-American member of the Chickasaw Nation — had been seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, which has struggled in making inroads with minorities. At a rally in April with Shannon and Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, Sarah Palin called Shannon “the whole package.”

“The Democrats accuse us of not embracing diversity? Oh, my goodness. He is it,” Palin said at the April event.

Besides Cruz and Palin, several other conservative outside groups had endorsed Shannon, including Senate Conservative Fund and Now or Never PAC. Lankford, meanwhile, was largely stranded by both the establishment and tea party groups in Washington.

Although he won his first House race in 2010 with tea-party support, Lankford became a target for conservatives this year who thought he was too cozy with House leadership. But Lankford had the support of — or so it seemed to voters — one key individual: Sen. Tom Coburn, whose seat he and Shannon were seeking to fill upon Coburn’s planned resignation at the end of the year.

Coburn repeatedly said he would stay out of the race, but he released a statement on June 12 calling Lankford “a man of absolute integrity,” which was seen as a subtle endorsement. Coburn’s statement was aimed at criticizing the attacks on Lankford from outside groups, but his words were later used in an ad by the Lankford campaign, which spent nearly $2 million overall.

Shannon was also hurt by the timing of the primary, which fell on the same day as the Mississippi GOP Senate runoff. Most of the conservative groups who endorsed him went all in on Chris McDaniel in the final weeks, assuming the Oklahoma race would head to a runoff.

“We would have liked to devote a bunch of resources in Oklahoma — in terms of ground game — but this runoff really forced our hand and forced us to focus our resources on where it would be most impactful,” said Kevin Broughton, spokesman for Tea Party Patriots — which has spent nearly nearly $1 million on the Mississippi Senate race – days before the primary.

This likely isn’t the last we’ll hear from Shannon, who is a rising star in the party that may end up running for Governor someday, or Senate is James Inhofe retires at some point. For now, though, he stands as yet another victim of the “establishment” in a war that began a year ago in the wake of the disastrous government shutdown engineered by Ted Cruz and Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks and Senate Conservatives Fund.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Color me shocked says:

    So… let me get this straight:

    A white GOP senator… defeated a black GOP candidate.

    In Oklahoma.

    Nope… would have never seen that coming.

  2. Matt Bernius says:

    @Color me shocked:
    Sorry… I think reducing this down to race is playing into the worst stereotypes of the GOP. It also ignores the following facts:

    1. Lankford is the incumbent and was more-or-less endorsed by popular *State* leaders
    2. Lankford rode in on the Tea Party — which means that *some* of that base was going to stick with him.
    3. Prior to getting elected, Lankford ran the state’s largest Baptist summer camp giving him a built-in base with a large swath of social conservatives

    Could race have played some part — sure. But to reduce it down *to race* is a mistake.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    I’m sure that Oklahomans very much appreciated an elitist Texan – Ted Cruz – weighing in with an endorsement in the Oklahoma race. This looks suspiciously like a beat-down for Ted.