BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
The first is the number of Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma. The second is the number of members affiliated with those churches.
Lankford is only halfway through his second two-year term and his district, Oklahoma’s 5th, covers parts of only three of the state’s 77 counties.
But he has statewide name recognition that traces directly to the 1,800 and 640,000 – priceless given the relatively short campaign period created by Coburn’s sudden decision to retire early.
Southern Baptist congregants across the state know Lankford from his years of running the Falls Creek summer youth camp. And he’s been a long-time fill-in guest preacher at SBC-affiliated churches across the state.
Indeed, you can make a case he may more popular statewide than in his mostly urban congressional district where Southern Baptist churches are less influential overall than in small town Oklahoma and where the state’s more moderate-progressive-liberal voters tend to congregate.
The state’s brightest, savviest congressman, Tom Cole, would have been a formidable contender, no doubt. But he also is a realist: At 64, it’s probably not worth starting over in the Senate, particularly when you’d be giving up a House leadership position. And he’s always been the consummate Republican team player – my guess is, he figures Lankford has the clearest path to victory in November.
Most interesting, though, is the notion that rookie Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Tulsa might challenge for the Coburn seat.
Bridenstine isn’t terribly popular in his district: A Tulsa World-Oklahoma Poll in early November found only 44% of voters [in the Tulsa portion] approved of the job he was doing.
But he is a national Tea Party darling. The World reported today, for example, he was in South Carolina over the weekend speaking at a Tea Party convention and that he has ties to former SC Sen. Jim DeMint, now president of the conservative “think-tank” – there’s an oxymoron for you – Heritage Foundation.
Deep-pocketed Heritage-types – think: Koch Brothers and their ilk – could make Bridenstine competitive instantly.
The question is, why bother? Lankford is Jim Inhofe with a smile. Lankford, Inhofe and Bridenstine all reside in the Dark Ages when it comes to climate science, reproductive rights, fair and equal treatment of LGBTQ Americans and on and on.
In fact, they’re nearly perfect for the majority of Oklahoma’s minority that manages to pry itself away from Duck Dynasty long enough to cast electoral ballots.
An aside: Isn’t it interesting that neither longtime U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, the House Agriculture Committee chair, nor rookie Congressman Markwayne Mullin are being mentioned as possible Senate candidates?
Lucas’ base, of course, is the less populated western half of Oklahoma. Coupled with a vanilla personality, he’s not likely to capture voter imagination when it comes to replacing a gadfly like Coburn.
And Mullin? Well, he’s probably still busy trying to sort out how many branches of government there are.
We’ll take a look at potential Democratic candidates in a future post. And a more complete analysis of the Senate race – and Coburn’s political career – will appear in the February Observer.
– Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer