Any room for advancement in Oklahoma federal politics is predicated on the plans of Sen. Tom Coburn, the two-term Republican waging a fourth battle with cancer.
Coburn has already said he won’t run for re-election when his term expires in 2016. But with the possibility that he opts to leave earlier, operatives in Oklahoma said the timing of his exit would change the calculus for ambitious politicians.
Republican Gov. Mary Fallin does not have the power to appoint someone to fill a vacancy in the Senate. Instead, if Coburn resigned in, say, 2014, a special election would be held concurrent with the state’s midterm election dates to fill the seat.
Operatives said a shorter election time frame would benefit two potential candidates in the race: GOP Reps. Tom Cole and James Lankford, who are already well-financed.
Cole, a connected former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, had nearly $1.1 million in the bank as of Sept. 30 that he could transfer to a Senate run. Lankford, a rising star in the party who was first elected in the 2010 tea party wave, had $455,000 in cash on hand.
Freshman Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who ousted Rep. John Sullivan in an ugly GOP primary in 2012, is also expected to take a look at the race, Republican strategists said.
Still, the bench for Coburn’s seat runs far deeper than the members of the congressional delegation. And Republican operatives said an open-seat race in 2016 could see a host of rising stars throw their names into the mix.
“We’re certainly not going to rest on our laurels, but we’re blessed to have a deep bench in the state of Oklahoma,” state GOP Chairman Dave Weston said.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a Republican, was often mentioned as a possible Senate candidate, along with state Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas.
Republicans said T.W. Shannon, the first African-American speaker of Oklahoma’s state House, is also a potential Senate contender — unless Cole runs. In that event, GOP operatives said Shannon, a former Cole staffer, would consider Cole’s vacant 4th District seat and could potentially clear the field.
If Bridenstine or Lankford enter the Senate race, a number of Republicans would look at their solidly Republican House seats. Among the names mentioned for Bridenstine’s 1st District included GOP state Sens. Dan Newberry and Rick Brinkley, as well as Tulsa County Commissioner John Smaligo.
Democrat Kathy Taylor, who put millions of her own personal wealth into the 2013 Tulsa mayoral race, could also run. Taylor served as mayor from 2006 until 2009, and lost her comeback bid last year.
Lankford’s 5th District would also draw a host of ambitious Republicans, operatives said. State Sen. Clark Jolley would likely eye a bid. Other potential contenders include Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett; state Sen. David Holt, previously a staffer to former Speaker Dennis Hastert; and state Rep. Tom Newell, a former professional bull rider.
On the Democratic side, there aren’t nearly the same opportunities. President Barack Obama lost the Sooner State by a 33-point margin in 2012, and all five congressional districts lean solidly Republican.
Operatives said the only Democrat who could make the Senate race competitive is former Rep. Dan Boren, whose last name is synonymous with his party’s politics in Oklahoma. Boren’s father, David Boren, served as governor and later senator before taking the job he currently holds as president of the University of Oklahoma.
But Republicans don’t expect the younger Boren to wage a bid. Soon after his fourth term in the House ended in 2013, the 40-year-old began working for the Chickasaw Nation, a plum job for a retired member of Congress.
“He’s the only [Democrat] who could make it competitive,” one Republican operative said. “And Dan is smart enough not to do it.”
Farm Team is a weekly state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.