Primary Musings from Oklahoma, Colorado, and Mississippi

Published June 26, 2014

With a surprisingly wide margin of victory, Congressman James Lankford won the Oklahoma Republican U.S. Senate primary, defeating former Speaker of the State House of Representatives T.W. Shannon by 23 points and avoiding a runoff election. Lankford now becomes the prohibitive favorite to replace outgoing Senator Tom Coburn, who is retiring with two years remaining in his current term.

This was a very different race from the one taking place in Mississippi. Despite negative ads run against Lankford by conservative groups, the Oklahoma contest was not an example of an “establishment” Republican or RINO versus a Tea Party candidate. In short, both Lankford and Shannon are credible, likeable conservatives, both are qualified for higher elected office, and both are likely to be on the scene in the future—to Oklahoma’s credit.

A former Baptist minister (or is a Baptist minister, like a Marine, never “former”?), Lankford directed a large Christian youth camp for more than a decade before winning election to Congress in 2010 in the Tea Party tsunami.

T.W. Shannon, the first black Speaker of the House in Oklahoma and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, has worked for former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts and current Rep. Tom Cole (who won his primary on Tuesday and will seek a 7th term in Congress). He is a business consultant with a law degree from Oklahoma City University.

Although it makes life a little dull for reporters, the two candidates were exceptionally similar in their positions on issues. This made the race about retail politics, framing the opponent, and eventually about the perhaps back-firing impact of out-of-state and PAC money spent trying to influence the race.

Shannon was boosted by an Tea Party blitz, drawing support from Senator Ted Cruz representing the Senate Conservatives Fund. FreedomWorks PAC also endorsed Shannon, calling him “a principled leader…He has blocked ObamaCare implementation in Oklahoma, signed a pledge to fight Common Core, founded the first States’ Rights Committee to protect Oklahomans from overreaching federal regulation, and consistently voted for lower taxes and more individual freedom.”

The Sunlight Foundation, a campaign finance watchdog group, argues that “dark money” was “the key factor driving Oklahoma’s Senate battle,” referencing especially a group called Oklahomans for a Conservative Future which spent $1.3 million, mostly attacking Congressman Lankford.

But primary voters are better informed than the electorate overall, so attacks against Lankford for “voting with liberals to raise the debt ceiling twice”—despite the fact that both Tom Coburn and Oklahoma’s other conservative Republican senator, James Inhofe, also voted for the debt ceiling measure—landed with a thud. Instead, it seems that Oklahomans took minor offense at being told what to do, including by groups that consistently support conservatives but whose mailing addresses are within spitting distance of Capitol Hill and therefore little more than possibly-well-intended interlopers.

This result was predicted five months ago by Congressman Tom Cole, who said in an interview with Roll Call that “Groups coming from outside the state, coming to try and set the agenda, sorry. You are welcome to come, but you ought to look at your track record.”

Oklahomans should hope that T.W. Shannon runs for office again in the future. That said, nothing in James Lankford’s two terms in Congress should have made him unappealing to Sooner voters. And they were not going to let negative ads, whether by outsiders or even Oklahomans, fool them.

A similar story played out in Colorado’s Republican primary for governor, in which former Congressman Bob Beauprez eked out a victory in a four-man field. The race ended up far more competitive than most elections with a handful of candidates: Beauprez received 30 percent in victory, beating former Congressman Tom Tancredo (26.5 percent) and Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler (23 percent), while former State Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp came in fourth with nearly 20 percent. It was as tight a four-person race as I have seen, with Gessler and Kopp outperforming many people’s expectations.

Beauprez, who lost a prior race for governor by a wide margin to Democrat Bill Ritter in 2006, never abandoned a vision of himself returning to office. Seeing what he perceived to be a weak field encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring; with Tuesday’s victory, Beauprez faces a difficult challenge in defeating incumbent Democrat Governor John Hickenlooper who, despite angering many Coloradoans with attacks on gun rights, refusing to execute a mass-murderer, and supporting radical environmentalist plans to increase electricity costs (through increased renewable energy mandates) in rural Colorado, remains a fairly popular figure in the state.

The media has already reported the Colorado result as “establishment” win. While Bob Beauprez is reasonably characterized as an Establishment candidate, the others were hardly Tea Party representatives.

Given his outspoken opposition to both illegal and legal immigration, Tancredo is a breed unto himself. To be fair, he has principled constitutional and libertarian leanings that I admire, and I belatedly endorsed him in 2010. But I believe that his reputation as a one-trick pony would not only have made him unelectable, but also would have poisoned the ticket for other Republicans, particularly Congressman Cory Gardner, whose race to unseat Senator Mark Udall is winnable.

There was very little public polling done in Colorado in recent months. Earlier in the campaign, the front-runner appeared to be Tancredo, who lost a three-way contest for governor in 2010 when he switched to the American Constitution Party after the Colorado GOP nominated an unelectable candidate in a bit of misdirected Tea Party mania. Why did Tancredo, whose name recognition is roughly equal to Beauprez’s (both of whom are better known than Mssrs. Gessler and Kopp) lose his early lead? In part, similar to what happened in Oklahoma, because political ads backfired.

One of the first widely run ads in the campaign accused Tancredo of being “too conservative for Colorado” because of his strong opposition to Obamacare. This transparent ploy to make Tancredo more appealing to Republican primary voters by pretending to criticize him was paid for by a Democrat-affiliated 527 group called Protect Colorado Values. Clearly the Democrats perceived Tancredo’s potential negatives the same way I did, but their obvious involvement was a major miscalculation.

The same Democrats ran an ad accusing Bob Beauprez of supporting an individual health insurance mandate—which in fact he “reluctantly” did in 2007, though it never translated into support for Obamacare and he later changed his view. But despite Beauprez’s imperfect record (which is no worse than most other Republicans who served during the George W. Bush years) nobody who follows Colorado politics believes him to be anything but a solid conservative.

Again, as primary voters, who tend to be better-informed than the population overall, took umbrage at the transparent attempt at manipulation.

Republicans also ran unfair—and almost certainly ineffective, despite Tuesday’s results—ads against Tancredo, such as one supported by the popular former Senator Bill Armstrong that suggested Tancredo would legalize heroin and other hard drugs. In fact, Tancredo has taken a bold position for marijuana legalization and had said he would consider legalizing other drugs (mostly in the interest of reducing violence caused by gangs protecting drug profits), but the ad was so hyperbolic that its effect was likely minimal.

The outspoken social conservative Mike Kopp campaigned aggressively on opposition to marijuana legalization, but Colorado voters were not overwhelmed with a backward-looking message on an issue where the people have spoken.

Perhaps with the memory of Republicans’ enormous mistake in 2010 of nominating an unelectable small businessman whose personal story was, to put it kindly, exaggerated, and perhaps because many voices (such as on my radio show) urged GOP primary voters to consider first and foremost the candidate most likely to win in November, Bob Beauprez came from behind to earn his second shot at the Governor’s Mansion. While I think it will be a serious challenge to beat John Hickenlooper in November, Beauprez’s victory is welcome news to Republican senate candidate Cory Gardner and other Republicans down the ticket. My suggested motto, borrowing 1,500-year old wisdom, for participants in Tuesday’s primary: First, do no harm. By selecting Beauprez, they’ve heeded that advice.

In an under-the-radar local election in Loveland, Colorado, voters rejected by 52 percent to 48 percent a moratorium on fracking, despite an onslaught of misleading ads from liberal opponents of energy development. Voters may have noticed that Weld County, which Loveland borders, produces most of the oil in Colorado and, according to a pro-energy development group, “had the largest percentage increase in employment in the US in 2013.” Fracking bans, many disguised as measures supporting “local control”—the backing of which by Democrats should make anyone suspicious since liberals always want political power to be as far from the people as possible—may be on many other ballots across the state in November. Thus, Tuesday’s result is a welcome potential harbinger of sanity when it comes to one of Colorado’s most important industries.

Just a few comments on Mississippi (which my colleague Matt Purple is covering here): Thad Cochran represents everything that is wrong with the Republican Party; if that weren’t already clear, the fact that John McCain campaigned for him should have been the final necessary proof.

Pork king Cochran won his race by using Mississippi’s unfortunate election rules—which allow Democrats to vote in the Republican primary if they haven’t already voted in the Democratic primary—to win support from the opposition party by unashamedly promising more federal spending for his state. A typically inept mainstream media analysis was provided by CNN’s Gloria Borger who suggested that the GOP could learn something from Cochran’s winning coalition of establishment Republicans and Democrats since many of those Democrats had never before in their lives voted for a Republican. The problem is that approximately none of those Democrats will ever again vote for a Republican. In the meantime, Cochran’s supporters unsubtly played up the worst (e.g. racist) stereotypes of Tea Party candidates.

Republicans like Thad Cochran are the raison d’être for the Tea Party and candidates like the unsuccessful Chris McDaniel. A Republican senator who wins a primary election on the strength of Democratic support by making promises that should come from Democrats and other proponents of redistribution, pork, wasteful spending, and fundamentally unlimited government is the very definition of been-there-too-long. (Cochran has been in Congress, including the House, for more than 40 years—and it shows.) The GOP and every Republican who supported Cochran should feel something between slight embarrassment and outright shame.

A final note: One has to wonder how Thomas Carey feels today. Carey was the third Republican candidate in the original Mississippi primary race. He had no business in the race and no chance to win. Yet his presence almost certainly cost McDaniel the outright win on June 3, forcing the run-off election and allowing Cochran the time to organize Democrats to hold on to the seat he uses to buy votes with our money. Mr. Carey owes the nation an apology.


[Originally published at The American Spectator]