In what may be the most intriguing Republican primary for the U.S. Senate this year, the race for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma features a tea party favorite with "establishment" backing who also happens to be black.
T.W Shannon faces a congressman who came in as a political outsider, but is now considered an "insider" by the tea party.
After Coburn revealed he had cancer and announced he was stepping down two years before his term expired, the resultant special election in 2014 at first shaped up as a race between two GOP House members: two-termer James Lankford of Oklahoma City, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, and freshman James Bridenstine of Tulsa, also a conservative and a favorite of the tea party movement.
But in the latest surprise in the race, Bridenstine signaled last week that he was not going to run for the Senate after all. Within hours of his announcement, state House Speaker Shannon said he would.
Shannon, 35, a Lawton, Okla., lawyer and public relations agent, has been a hero to Sooner State conservatives since assuming the speaker's role last year.
He has been the driving force behind such conservative legislation as selling off state-owned properties to private business and requiring food-stamp recipients to perform at least 35 hours of community service to receive benefits.
He also has another compelling credential: He is the first black Republican speaker of a state House of Representatives anywhere since Reconstruction.
"And that's going to help T.W. [Tahrohon Wayne] achieve a big fundraising advantage nationally," one veteran Oklahoma Republican activist told Newsmax.
"No one wants to come out and say it, but there are a lot of Republicans around the country who would love to have the first black Republican to be elected senator in more than 40 years," since Edward Brooke. He served in the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott is black, but he was appointed and faces state voters for the first time this fall.
Although Shannon is a protégé of two important "establishment" Republicans in Oklahoma — Rep. Tom Cole and former Rep. J.C. Watts — he is considered the early favorite of the tea party. Lankford is definitely not.
Although his voting record is solidly conservative, Lankford raised hackles among the tea party when he voted for the Ryan-Murray budget deal in December. In addition, Lankford, who is No. 6 in the House GOP hierarchy, has made statements on immigration that caused many on the right to think he favors amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"I wouldn't prohibit forever [people from getting citizenship]," he told reporters. "I'm a Christian, and restitution and reconciliation's a big deal. If you do something illegal or inappropriate you should be able to resolve that, face the penalty, clear it and be forgiven."
Lankford, 45, is "a yes-man for House leadership, and he will be a yes-man for Senate leadership," declared a recent memo from the conservative Madison Project.
Working in Lankford's favor is the same credential that propelled the first-time office seeker to a spectacular upset win over several seasoned office holders vying for Oklahoma's 5th District House seat in 2010.
As director of the Falls Creek Camp for young Christians for 14 years, Lankford has close contacts and friendships with a powerful community. The 96-year-old camp, a project of the Baptist General Convention, has had more than 5,000 Christians per week go through its training, which includes teaching Christian principles as well as hiking and swimming. In 2009, the year before Lankford ran for Congress, Falls Creek hosted 27,000 campers.
While the fledgling candidate spent less than $350,000 — or about a third of what any of his major opponents spent — Lankford had an eager infantry of volunteer workers from the Falls Creek alumni. In the run-off, he easily defeated the candidate backed by the conservative Club for Growth.
Also in the GOP primary this year is businessman Eric McCray. The primary is June 24 and if no candidate wins a majority, a run-off between the two top vote-getters will be held in August.
For Republicans, the beauty about this contest is that no matter how rough the campaign gets, the winner will almost surely go to the Senate. No Democrat has won a Senate seat in Oklahoma since 1990.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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