OK Senate: Young men in a hurry, with a shade of difference


By Patrick B. McGuigan | Oklahoma Watchdog

OKLAHOMA CITY — Allen Drury was a Washington, D.C., journalist who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Advise and Consent.”

SHADES OF DIFFERENCE: At left: U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City; At right: Oklahoma Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton. Both men are conservative and both have, at times, appealed to “Tea Party” Republicans. And each of them wants the GOP nomination to take the place of retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn.

One sequel to that novel was “A Shade of Difference,” a compelling fictional look at America in the early Civil Rights era.

Central to Drury’s stories were not only profound fissures that already marked political discourse and debate, but subtleties that amounted — in some respects like ethic or racial distinctions — to “a shade of difference” rather than anything fundamental.

The two leading candidates for the Republican nomination to replace Tom Coburn are (relatively) young men in a hurry. They are both conservative.

U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is 45. Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, is 35.

Both hate federal debt and continued annual deficits. Each speaks passionately about the devastating impact of over-spending on the nation’s economic health and prospects for our children and grandchildren.

Shannon the Baptist Sunday School teacher quotes Sacred Scripture about the evils of debt — including allusions to debt as a form of slavery. Lankford the ordained Southern Baptist preacher fluently cites framers of free-market economic theories.

James and his wife of 20 years, Cindy, have two children. T.W. and his wife of 13 years, Devon, have two kids.

Both characterize the economy as stagnant or under-performing. Each is comfortable and confident in the public square, an unashamed defender of traditional marriage. Each is a social conservative, although neither has made social conservatism their defining issue.

Each man has appealed to “Tea Party” elements, decried in much of America but pretty close to the Republican mainstream — with some individual exceptions — in Oklahoma, where many boast they reside in the “reddest of the Red States.”

T.W. Shannon has been a consistent foe of the Affordable Care Act; James Lankford was elected in part based on his predictions that “Obamacare” would destroy the health-care system and that its mandates boost long-term debt.

In Congress, Lankford fights presidential overreach, including President Obama‘s frequent use of executive orders, from the Legislature. Shannon assails federal interference with legislative state prerogatives and authority – and empowered an ally to form a “State’s Rights” Committee press against federal encroachment.

Each has drawn partisan foes into friendly personal ties; each has a small coterie of passionate critics in both parties.

So, are there shades of difference?

Lankford was raised by a single mother and moved from Texas to adopt Oklahoma as home — Shannon has deep Oklahoma roots and hails from military roots; that’s how he wound up at Fort Sill/Lawton.

Shannon may position himself as the more conservative and point to Lankford’s support for increases in the federal debt limit to bolster his case, but he has more than once had allies “whip” reluctant Republicans into toeing a party line. Lankford has worked with his House leader, but he’s the author of a “shutdown prevention” act aimed at future shutdown fights — combining an initial freeze on spending with 1 percent spending reductions every 90 days until a continuing resolution is negotiated.

Shannon might arguably have more personal charisma and an appealing “back-story” as an African-American and member of the Chickasaw Nation. Lankford is former director of a Christian youth camp who in 2010 shocked the Oklahoma political establishment with a debt- and spending-centric campaign featuring deep knowledge of details in federal financing.

Shannon has held elective office for eight years and led state House Republicans for just more than a year, surrendering his speaker’s post Feb. 4. Lankford has held elective office for three years and was chosen leader of the U.S. House Policy Committee — fifth highest post in the lower chamber of Congress — just over a year ago, a position he still holds.

Lankford leads in early polls; few underestimate Shannon’s potential to rally.

Shannon will draw support from Oklahoma’s largest Indian tribes, and Lankford has fans among the smaller Native American nations.

Shannon can give an incredible speech, but after 13 months as speaker his answers to reporters on most issues are pretty much the same as he gave when he assumed the speakership. Lankford is popular with national reporters not for his views, but because he gives quick and nuanced answers. James advocates not only lower spending but also lower taxes; T.W has helped shepherd a couple of income cuts into law.

Lankford is author of the federal Taxpayers Right to Know Act and an advocate of transparency. Shannon expresses sympathy for transparency but has made House procedures a tad less open than the process inherited from his predecessor.

One of Oklahoma’s most prominent black businessmen, media tycoon Russell Perry, is a Shannon supporter – but he was Lankford’s guest at this year’s State of the Union. Lankford has the support of oil and gas barons Harold Hamm (Continental Resources) Aubrey McClendon (formerly of Chesapeake Energy) and Larry Nichols (Devon Energy), but Shannon has “oilies” Tom McCasland (Mack Energy), Mike McDonald (Triad) and Tom Stapleton (also Triad) in his corner.

Lankford rolled more than a half-million from his House re-election into his Senate campaign. Shannon can’t carry his state House balance into a federal race but will raise plenty of cash before formal filing in April.

Although a couple of Democrats are looking at this race, the next U.S. senator from Oklahoma will likely be a strong conservative and probably one of these two men seeking to claim the mantle of a modern political legend. Voters will have decide between two ardent conservatives whose operational styles differ but whose substantive views are nearly the same.

You may contact Pat at pmcguigan@watchdog.org.

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