Rep. James Lankford said Monday he’ll run to serve out the term of retiring Sen. Tom Coburn in Oklahoma, setting up what could be another brutal primary GOP battle involving outside conservative pressure groups and the party’s establishment.
Mr. Lankford, now in his second term and a member of the elected leadership in the House, said he will pick up Mr. Coburn’s banner of fighting against government overspending, but he’s already running into trouble with conservative activists who questioned his record.
“The Senate is the most contentious body in our government today,” Mr. Lankford said in a statement announcing his run. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats “continue to divide America for political gain. The problems that we face as a nation will not be solved by yelling louder, they will be resolved when we put forward clear conservative solutions that the American people overwhelming support.”
But the Senate Conservatives Fund, a key pressure group, took the stark step Monday morning of saying — even before Mr. Lankford’s official announcement — that he will not be getting their support.
Oklahoma law calls for a special election, and Gov. Mary Fallin said she will schedule it for the same day as the regular election in November, which means any members of Congress who jump into the race will have to be ready to give up their current seats.
There are already a number of GOP Senate fights involving tea party-oriented candidates taking on establishment Republicans, and Oklahoma could join them, depending on who other than Mr. Lankford jumps in.
Given Oklahoma’s conservative leanings, the GOP primary, scheduled for June, is likely to determine the next senator.
The Madison Project, another group that directs attention and money to the campaigns of anti-Washington candidates, said Mr. Lankford is the wrong candidate for the party. In a blog post, the group said Mr. Lankford isn’t a “purely liberal Republican,” but said he is “a quintessential status quo Republican.”
The Madison Project said Mr. Lankford has voiced support for letting illegal immigrants get citizenship rights, and voted for last month’s budget deal that added billions of dollars more in spending this year and next. But chiefly the group said Mr. Lankford suffers from being associated with House Speaker John A. Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership.
Conservative groups and pundits such as Erick Erickson have floated trying to recruit Rep. Jim Bridenstine for the race.
“Jim is the guy I would support in an instant to replace Senator Coburn in Oklahoma,” Mr. Erickson wrote over the weekend at RedState.com. “I don’t know whether he is running or not, but conservatives would be insane to not draft him into the race. In fact, I think conservatives should draft him, rally around him, and let the establishment be the side divided behind multiple candidates.”
Mr. Bridenstine’s political team released a statement saying that he was aware of the overtures “but he is not inclined to rush the decision.”
Another Oklahoma Republican, Rep. Tom Cole, took himself out of the running over the weekend, saying he preferred to stay in the House.