COMMENTARY: Republican Senate primary grows more complicated

OKLAHOMA CITY – With a new candidate in the running and Sarah Palin’s involvement, the clash of two titans in Oklahoma’s U.S. Senate primary, has grown more complicated for the pundit class, including your humble servant.

Many have forgotten that Ronald Reagan, early in the 1980 campaign cycle, faced a plethora of challengers for the Republican presidential nomination.

One was U.S. Rep. Phil Crane, R-Illinois, who supported the former California governor in his 1976 challenge against President Gerald Ford.

On scattered issues, Crane positioned himself to the right of Reagan.

Asked about jabs from his conservative flank, Reagan often replied, with that memorable grin: “Well, you know how it is. Sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the far right hand is doing.”

It worked. Crane withdrew after a couple of primaries, endorsed the most affable politician of my lifetime, and the rest is history.

Political history is being made in the June 26 Republican U.S. Senate primary to replace Tom Coburn, leaving the job two years early. Gov. Mary Fallin  scheduled a “special” election (coinciding with this year’s “regular” campaign) to fill the last two years of Coburn’s term.

U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, leads early opinion polls over state Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton. Among the most conservative officials in state history, the pair face a credible new “hard right” opponent, in former state Sen. Randy Brodgon, R-Owasso.

In the Legislature, Brogdon was a conservative stalwart, with ability to work occasionally with the moderate to liberal senators.

When Fallin entered the 2010 gubernatorial primary, she was expected to cruise over Brogdon. But in the strongest year so far for the state’s “Tea Party” element, the latter ran well statewide, performing capably against the front-runner. 

In the end, he garnered 39.42 percent to Fallin’s 54.8 percent (in a four-candidate field). Brogdon soon endorsed Fallin in a joint appearance.

Brogdon took a high-paying job with the state Department of Insurance, at a time of some government budget restraint. That might weaken his ability to peg either front-runner this year as a “career politician.” (Shannon has eight years in the Legislature, Lankford three in Congress.)

Brogdon appeals to the libertarian GOP element and to overt Tea Party sympathizers, but that might have practical limits.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was expected to run strongly, but gained only 9 percent in the 2012 state presidential primary. However, Paul’s campaign here had so many problems, including a dysfunctional central player, that the poor showing could actually mask the extent of libertarian strength this year.

Tulsa, the state’s second largest city and the dominant media market in Brogdon’s home base, is likely a jump ball in the primary. Brogdon can build on regional affinity as he takes on Shannon, with his southwest Oklahoma base, and Lankford, with his base in the capital city.

Shannon, who served only 13 months as state House leader, is benefiting from widespread early television buys – both his own and independent expenditures.

Further, Shannon got a huge boost this week with an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party’s 2008 vice-presidential nominee.

Palin’s endorsement and Brogdon’s entry are possible game-changers, factors that might force a runoff on August 28. Voters in both major parties have from time to time nominated, in a runoff, candidates who ran second in a primary.

Lankford will build on supporting in the party’s conservative mainstream. His strong backing from leading oil and gas tycoons will allow him to advertise heavily.

However, Shannon will gain from the independent expenditures. He has his own share of heavyweight business leaders, including Clay Bennett of Oklahoma City, principal owner of the Thunder, the NBA franchise.

Lankford’s campaign style is muted but effective. He surged from the back of the pack to win over a crowded 2010 congressional field. Notable that year was his deft use of social media.

Lankford remains the front-runner, Shannon a powerful challenger, and Brogdon a potentially dispositive X-factor. What’s new for Oklahoma voters will be massive infusion of political money from across the United States. Shades of difference will be magnified to seem stark in upcoming advertising blitzes.

More complicated and perhaps more consequential than philosophical distinctions will be assessments voters ultimately reach about each candidate as a person.

Concerning the two front-runners, there is a powerful sentiment among thousands of Republican activists, articulated often this week: “It’s a damn shame either one of them has to lose.” Some add Brodgon to that sentiment.

The primary winner will fit comfortably into the upper chamber’s conservative mainstream, yet it doesn’t take a genius to observe that this primary (and possible runoff) may yield the most intense campaign in state history.

I can hear the Gipper, whom every Oklahoma Republican seems to idolize, summing things up this way: Sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what either the far right hand or the far-far right hand is doing.
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