Deficit Hawk's Potential Replacements Jockey for His Mantle

Susan Walsh/AP

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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