OKLAHOMA CITY — In the biggest surprise of Tuesday's primary voting in five states, the former director of a Tulsa space museum stunned a five-term congressman in a Republican primary by criticizing him as not conservative enough for Oklahoma and attacking a high absentee rate that the incumbent blamed on treatment for alcoholism and the death of a child.
Fueled by tea party support, Jim Bridenstine, 36, of Tulsa described Rep. John Sullivan as a career politician who showed how out of touch he is with the voters in the reddest of red states by voting for bailouts, federal debt-ceiling increases and "government takeovers."
"If you look across our country right now, well-established candidates are being beaten by newcomers because there is a thirst for fresh people that are willing to solve the nation's problems and not just get re-elected," Mr. Bridenstine said after his victory.
Mr. Bridenstine, a Navy pilot, promised to serve no more than three terms if elected in November.
Mr. Sullivan, 47, acknowledged voting for various assistance and spending policies as the nation struggled through an economic downturn, but said he still considered himself the most conservative congressman in the state. In a statement Tuesday night, Mr. Sullivan accepted defeat and said he would work to remove President Obama from office in the fall.
The candidates had been sparring for months, although few expected the challenger to prevail. A radio debate earlier this month descended into a shouting match, and Mr. Bridenstine accused his opponent of lacking the courage to debate more.
In a series of advertisements and at debates, Mr. Bridenstine noted Mr. Sullivan had missed 9 percent of U.S. House votes since 2003, much higher than the average rate of 2.4 percent.
The congressman said Mr. Bridenstine's attacks on his absenteeism were a subtle allusion to his time at the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcoholism and his missing votes after the death of a child.
"It's disappointing that he doesn't just come out and say it," Mr. Sullivan said three weeks ago as the campaign intensified. "People have been very loving and kind to me about this. If I could take things back in my life, I would."
Mr. Sullivan's daughter Ellen died two days after birth Feb. 5, 2003. Her twin brother survived. And in May 2009, Mr. Sullivan began a monthlong treatment for alcoholism.
Mr. Sullivan fired back at Mr. Bridenstine over his leadership of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, claiming that the museum was "nearly ruined" while Mr. Bridenstine served as its executive director. Mr. Bridenstine acknowledged that the museum took on losses under his leadership nearly $383,000 in 2009 and 2010, according to tax forms but maintains that the red ink was justified because he was trying to attract a retired NASA shuttle for the facility.
Mr. Bridenstine is expected to be a favorite in the Nov. 6 general election against Democrat John Olson, the owner of a small business, and independent Craig Allen, an airline pilot. The seat has been in Republican hands since 1986.