A funny thing happened on the way to Oklahoma’s U.S. Senate primary: T.W. Shannon’s right flank is restive

OKLAHOMA CITY — What do Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz have in common?

Both are from that ardent multi-issue, grassroots, conservative flank of the Republican Party widely branded “the tea party.”

Funny thing is, both Palin and Cruz have upset a large cluster of Oklahoma tea party leaders by endorsing for U.S. Senate former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon.

The front runners in the race are U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and Shannon both popular among the mainstream Republican rank-and-file.
Shannon said last week he hopes the defeat of U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary will give him a boost.

In a prepared statement read to this reporter, attributed by his spokesman to Shannon, the candidate said, “This is old news based on a letter that was circulated five weeks ago.”

Local tea party leaders and conservative activists have angrily objected to outsiders anointing Shannon, said Michael Bates, one of Oklahoma’s leading conservative political bloggers.

Those outsiders didn’t bother to talk to locals who know these candidates best, Bates wrote Monday on his “BatesLine” blog. For his part, Bates is backing former state Sen. Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso, who is running a distant third in the primary race.
Indeed, the Tea Party rumblings began early in the campaign, but gained wider circulation last week. On Thursday, 38 grassroots leaders and activists issued a joint statement reinforcing their “opposition to the outside endorsements of T.W. Shannon for U.S. Senate.”
“We owe it to our members and fellow conservative citizens to set the record straight that we do not endorse or support T.W. Shannon for U.S. Senate,” the joint statement, “An Open Letter to the DC Tea Party Establishment,” read.

The leaders said the Senate Conservatives Fund, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others were “at odds with many of the Tea Party and Grassroots Liberty organizations in Oklahoma.”

The group contends Shannon, who said one of his top priorities as speaker was “to repeal Common Core,” was nowhere to be found during the discussion and passage of the repeal, House Bill 3399.

Shannon voted for repeal on the last day of the 2014 legislative session and signed on as a co-author, but tea party leaders said he “actually he did nothing to help move the bill through the process, nor did he debate for the passage of H.B. 3399.”

The tea partyers went on, criticizing Shannon for voting to increase driver’s license fees, boost state spending, supporting “corporate tax subsidies” and passing the largest state government budget in Oklahoma history, repeating themes from an earlier missive.

And then there’s Sen. Tom Coburn, the man the candidates want to replace and the politician whose support every Republican candidate in Oklahoma, including Lankford and Shannon, covets. The architect of the state Republican Party’s historic capture of every statewide elective office in 2010 is officially neutral.

Coburn called Lankford “a man of great character” when he assailed the anonymous spending on negative ads in the race. Days after anti-Shannon independent ads appeared this month, Coburn critized those, too.

Negative ads contribute to “the great tension in our country today,” Coburn said.“Voters no longer trust their elected officials to do the right thing.”

Lankford has led in most polls throughout the campaign. Pro-Shannon independent television advertisements appeared to close the gap a few weeks ago, but Lankford has sustained a narrow margin the last few weeks.

In a final Tulsa World “Sooner Poll,” Lankford led with 41 percent to Shannon’s 38 percent. Brogdon was below 5 percent and the four dark horses had 2 percent in all. Sixteen percent were undecided in the survey, which closed on June 18. The polling professions pegged their margin of error at 4.81 percent

The divisions among conservatives are not Shannon’s only problems. Before his tea party woes intensified this week, there was the May 13 arrest of longtime Shannon ally Chad Alexander.
The former state Republican Party chairman was at the time chairman of Oklahomans for a Conservative Future, one of the pro-Shannon independent expenditure groups. The group has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into ads attacking Lankford.

Alexander immediately took a leave of absence from all political and lobbying positions. However, last week Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, confirmed he had begun an investigation of two campaigns, including Shannon’s, for alleged collusion between candidates and anonymous donor groups.

Shannon’s campaign spokesman Friday told CapitolBeatOK the race is a dead heat.

Shannon himself, in his prepared statement, said, “The individuals who signed this letter are obviously supporting another candidate in the race. There are many Tea Party folks who are supporting my campaign as well. The Tea Party, by its very nature, is a movement, not an organization. The 38 individuals who signed the letter are self-appointed leaders who only represent themselves.”

Hundreds of Christian pastors in the state, including many Southern Baptists (the state’s largest denomination) formally endorsed Lankford Wednesday.

Lankford’s supporters hope he can win with enough support to avoid a runoff.

Both candidates are claiming tea party support. Given their conservative credentials, it isn’t safe to assume tea party leaders would retain their allegiances should a runoff be needed.

“Even if Shannon or Lankford won the primary outright,” Bates wrote this week, it would hardly be a tragedy for conservatives.”

Whether the state’s tea party leaders will hold any grudge against Palin or Cruz after Tuesday, time will tell.

You may contact Pat McGuigan at www.Watchdog.org
Note: The June 19 open letter was signed by: Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, Tulsa 9.12 Project; Sandra Crosnoe R3publicans; John and Cyndi McArtor, Get America Back; Matthew Vermillion, OKforTEA; Martha Vermillion, OKforTEA; Harold Vermillion, OKforTEA; Peggy Burgess, Tulsa 9.12 Project; Bruce DeLay, Patriot Pastor, Heartland Church; Marlene Lynch, Logan County GOP; Howard Houchen, Choctaw County Tea Party; Joy Collins, Bartians for Academic Freedom; Dulcie Hannigan OKforTEA; Tom Counts, OKforTEA; Jenni White, Restore OK Public Education (ROPE); Lynn Habluetzel, Restore OK Public Education Molly Wehrenberg, High Noon Club; Paul Wehrenberg, OKC Tea Party; Robert Seamands, GEL (Govern Edmond Locally); Jay Calan, Ottawa County Republicans; Bonnie Latshaw, Tulsa 9.12 Project; Lonnie Lu Anderson, Southeastern OK Tea Party; Kaye Beach, AxXiom for Liberty; G Rae and Craig Phillips, Tulsa 9.12 Project; Sharon Annesley, Oklahoma Liberty Tea Party; Mark Keeling Grady County Tea Party; Karen Yates OKC 9.12 Project; Paul Sublett OKC Tea Party; Ric Moore, Logan County GOP; Elaine Leone, Tulsa 9.12 Project; Amanda Miller, DOR (Day of Resistance); Naomi Koehn, Tulsa 9.12 Project; and Elaine Nickelson, Delaware County GOP.