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

Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:09pm

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.

Some of Sullivan’s ads painted the Congressman as a “tenacious, tough, tireless” fighter for conservative causes, according to copies of several 30-second spots posted on his campaign website.

The Congressman’s spokesman did not return requests for information about his campaign except to offer his Tuesday night statement.

“Tonight, the voters spoke,” Sullivan said in the statement. “Unfortunately, we didn’t come out on top. It is the honor of a lifetime to represent the people of the First District of Oklahoma.”

Sullivan came to Congress after a 2002 special election to replace Rep. Steve Largent (R), who resigned to run for governor. Sullivan, who served seven years in the state House and was a leader there, defeated Cathy Keating, the wife of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, in the primary despite being largely outspent by her.

In contrast, Bridenstine is a political newcomer.

He flew combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq for the Navy. While on duty, he helped train TOPGUN pilots by simulating enemy air patterns during live air practice.

Given his background, Bridenstine said, he’d like to serve on the Armed Services, Transportation and Infrastructure, or Energy and Commerce committees. He is all but assured a win in November, given the heavy Republican slant of the 1st district.

After his primary victory, Bridenstine said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and freshman Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) called to offer their congratulations and donate to his campaign.

Sullivan’s loss marks the fourth House incumbent to lose re-election this cycle, not including races that pit Members against each other after redistricting.

“I think we did all the right things, and I think he made mistakes,” Bridenstine said. “That put together our ability to win this.”