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John Sullivan’s Big Mistake? Ignoring Challenger for Too Long

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Low turnout on Tuesday hurt Rep. John Sullivan, who won his 2010 primary with 62 percent of the vote against two opponents. Turnout was down 16 percent from last cycle.

Navy Reserve pilot Jim Bridenstine knew Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) was getting desperate when the Congressman started attacking his alpacas.

“The biggest mistake he made was, in the last two weeks, when it looked like it was a close race, he started sending out mailers that were very, very negative,” Bridenstine said in a Wednesday phone interview.

Bridenstine toppled Sullivan in Tuesday’s GOP primary by 8 points, in what was one of the most unexpected upsets of the cycle. Unlike some of his colleagues who were caught completely off guard, Republicans said Sullivan realized he faced a tough race — it was just too late to fix it.

“I never had a race like this in all my life,” Sullivan told the Associated Press a few days ago. “The only mistake I made was I ignored it for too long.”

A month ago, Bridenstine released an internal poll showing a dead heat with Sullivan. Around the same time, the
five-term Congressman also asked his pollster, David Sackett of the Tarrance Group, to do his own poll of the race.

Sackett’s survey results didn’t look good for him. The Congressman’s campaign team ignored the primary challenge for most of the nine months that Bridenstine was in the race. Instead, it focused on Sullivan’s general election, even though the Tulsa-based 1st district isn’t competitive for Democrats.

So for the past few weeks, Sullivan’s campaign went nuclear. He attacked Bridenstine for his 21-month tenure as head of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium. He accused Bridenstine of not voting in elections back home while on active duty. He sent a direct-mail piece criticizing Bridenstine for accepting tax subsidies for his livestock — including the alpacas. Bridenstine denies taking the subsidies.

Low turnout on Tuesday also hurt Sullivan, who won his 2010 primary with 62 percent of the vote against two opponents. Turnout was down 16 percent from last cycle, when a contested gubernatorial primary drove GOP voters to the polls.

But Republicans say there were additional issues with Sullivan’s candidacy.

In 2009, the Congressman checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic in California for alcohol addiction. Bridenstine said he never brought up Sullivan’s public omission or rehabilitation on the campaign trail. Voters were already familiar with it, he said.

“All of them,” he said. “I think it definitely played in this election, but we did not have to talk about it.”

But Bridenstine did hammer Sullivan on his Congressional attendance record. His advertisements accused Sullivan of missing 679 votes during his Congressional career — about 9 percent of all votes cast.

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