The big surprise? His massive 23-point margin of victory over T.W. Shannon, who had been hailed as a rising GOP superstar.
Shannon, 36, was the youngest person to ever serve as Speaker of the Oklahoma House. He is African-American, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, and had the support of many of the big national tea party names , including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. On paper, Shannon seemed like he might follow in the footsteps of another Cruz-backed candidate, Ben Sasse, the 42-year-old GOP Senate nominee in Nebraska who rose from relative obscurity to beat the front-runner with the help of national tea party groups.
But Lankford had a number of advantages from the start in the race to succeed Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who is leaving Congress at the end of this year.
His biggest advantage was his large network in the Baptist community that knows and respects the congressman. Before Lankford entered politics, he ran the Falls Creek Baptist Youth Camp. The largest Christian youth camp in the country says it hosts more than 50,000 people over eight weeks every summer.
“Literally generations of people have gone to Falls Creek, and there’s this vast number of young people who grew up going and seeing him every summer, and the impact he had on their lives,” state Sen. Rick Brinkley, a Lankford backer, told CQ Roll Call Tuesday night.
As a result, Lankford also had a very strong ground game.
“No question that James had the best organization,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told CQ Roll Call Wednesday morning. In fact, he said, it was “probably the best organization in the state that was operating at this time.”
Lankford used his ground game to combat outside spending from Shannon’s backers, which eclipsed spending for the congressman by a 10-to-1 margin. According to OpenSecrets.org data on the race, $1.8 million was spent supporting Shannon and attacking Lankford, while just $170,000 was spent supporting Lankford and attacking Shannon.
The Lankford campaign spent more than Shannon on the race, $1.8 million to $1.1 million, according to the most recent fundraising data filed with the Federal Elections Commission in early June.
But Lankford, 46, received another boost on June 12, when Coburn, who is popular and well-respected, condemned ads from outside groups attacking Lankford and added some very flattering words about Lankford. At the start of the primary, Coburn said he would remain neutral in the race to replace him.
“I have come to know James Lankford in his short but very productive time in Washington, and I know he is a man of absolute integrity,” Coburn said in a statement. “We haven’t always agreed but he is one of the most honest, thoughtful and sincere men I have met in my time in Washington.”
State Sen. David Holt, a Republican from Lankford’s base in the Oklahoma City area who endorsed Shannon, called Coburn’s statement the single most important factor contributing to Lankford’s win.
“Senator Coburn is enormously respected in Oklahoma, and when it appeared that he had a preference, I think that the voters listened,” Holt told CQ Roll Call.
Coburn later issued a statement condemning negative ads from outside groups attacking Shannon. But Cole said, “It was clear to most readers and observers that he was on Lankford’s side.”
There was a third factor in Lankford’s favor: The bitter rift between the tea party and the establishment that dominated so many Republican primaries this cycle never emerged in this race, denying Shannon the tidal wave of anti-establishment support that allowed Sasse to overcome a better-known foe in Nebraska.
“We don’t need people coming in and telling us who conservatives are,” Cole said, because in Oklahoma Republican politics, “everybody is a conservative.”
“There are no moderates,” he said simply.
In such a Republican state as Oklahoma, Lankford will almost certainly be the next senator. He will serve out the remaining two years of Coburn’s term.
The race is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.