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Cole, taking no chances, readies for primary ‘bar fight’

Self-financing businessman Paul Bondar vows to do 'whatever it takes' to win House Appropriations chairman's seat in Oklahoma

“The guy who wins a bar fight isn’t the guy with the most money, it’s the guy with the most friends," Cole said of his primary challenge in Oklahoma.
“The guy who wins a bar fight isn’t the guy with the most money, it’s the guy with the most friends," Cole said of his primary challenge in Oklahoma. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Not long after rising to one of the most influential positions in Washington, House Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., is facing a surprisingly lively primary against a deep-pocketed challenger.

Paul Bondar, a businessman largely self-financing his campaign, is portraying himself as the true conservative and the real “Trump Republican” in the race, despite former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Cole. The Oklahoma primaries are being held June 18; Cole’s heavily Republican 4th District backed Trump by 32 percentage points over President Joe Biden in 2020.

But Bondar is facing residency questions as he voted in Texas’ Republican primary in March. And he had an awkward interview with a local TV station last week in which he repeatedly declined to answer if he was currently in Oklahoma — at one point saying his connection was cutting out during the exchange — before admitting he was not in the state.

An outside group supporting Cole, Americans 4 Security, is planning to spend about $4 million in the primary, said Pete Kirkham, who is helping run the group and served as the National Republican Congressional Committee’s executive director when Cole ran the House GOP campaign arm for the 2008 cycle.

Cole’s campaign and other groups are spending more on top of that, though the Americans 4 Security PAC is expected to be the biggest spender on Cole’s side in the race. Kirkham said his group is anticipating Bondar will spend about $6 million in the primary.

Bondar declined to comment on exactly how much he is planning to invest in the race, but said he would spend “whatever it takes” to win the election. And this won’t be his only attempt at the seat, he said.

“Regardless of this outcome, I am going to run a reelection campaign in 2026,” Bondar said in an interview. “Tom is 75 years old. I think people are going to quickly understand that, at some point, either really soon or not too far off, I will be the next congressman of this district, based on my level of commitment to this state.”

Cole and allies are taking the challenge seriously, but the veteran lawmaker projected confidence.

“It’s like an old-fashioned bar fight,” Cole said in an interview. “The guy who wins a bar fight isn’t the guy with the most money, it’s the guy with the most friends. And I have a lot of friends in that district.”

Clearing the field

Following former Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger’s decision to step down from the post early — she is retiring but planning to serve out the rest of her final term — Cole cleared the field and claimed the post unopposed. That’s an impressive feat for one of Congress’ most coveted gavels.

Cole is touting his 22-year record of being consistently anti-abortion, having an A+ rating from the NRA and receiving Trump’s endorsement, he said.

Cole talked up how he’s delivered for his military-heavy district, which includes the state’s two largest single-site employers, Tinker Air Force Base and the Army’s Fort Sill. He worked to secure funding for B-52 and F-35 aircraft engine upgrades that will benefit Tinker and earmarks like $5.8 million for an F-35 breathing oxygen shop in the final fiscal 2024 spending packages.

A member of the Chickasaw Nation and the longest-serving Native American lawmaker in House history, Cole touted his advocacy for tribal priorities. He’s pushed for steady Indian Health Service funding increases since joining Appropriations in 2009, helping to nearly double the agency’s budget during that time. Under Cole’s watch as Transportation-HUD Subcommittee chairman, the fiscal 2024 spending package boosted funding for Native American housing programs by 32 percent, to $1.34 billion.

“I’ll stack the record of service and effectiveness in Washington on behalf of the people of Oklahoma, their views, their values, their interest,” Cole said.

Bondar is arguing that Cole has lost touch with his district, and said the congressional schedule should be changed to allow members to spend at least half of their time in their districts.

He criticized Cole’s votes to reauthorize lapsing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities and said Cole should have demanded changes to border enforcement policy in exchange for additional support for Ukraine.

“He’s the chair, he’s got the power of the purse,” Bondar said. “I wish he would have said, let’s get together, let’s work together, let’s have some responsibility to strengthening our border, because we can’t afford not to stop this immigration.”

Bondar also criticized Cole for missing the vote on the bill that changed the Education Department’s definition of antisemitism to the one used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and said he has First Amendment concerns with that legislation.

Cole skipped votes that week in order to review the damage caused by a series of tornadoes in Oklahoma.

Big-money race

The airwaves in the district — which covers central-southern Oklahoma and covers part of Oklahoma City, Norman and much of Chickasaw Nation — have been saturated with advertisements on both sides of the race.

Bondar has spent a total of $3.3 million thus far, according to AdImpact data reviewed by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

The pro-Cole Americans 4 Security PAC has spent $3.36 million, while Cole’s campaign has spent $1.35 million. And he’s had some additional outside help: The American Action Network, which supports center-right candidates, has spent $373,000 on Cole’s behalf, while the Defending Main Street Super PAC, which supports pro-business candidates, has spent $190,000.

But the money doesn’t tell the full story — candidates get more bang for their buck than PACs. While the PAC and Bondar are spending at about the same level, Bondar is able to buy more ads as candidates are charged less for the space than PACs.

Bondar has already spent millions on advertisements that blast Cole as a “career politician” and criticize his support for Ukraine.

“Tom Cole has voted with Democrats, adding trillions of dollars to the national debt,” one ad says. “Paul Bondar is committed to eliminating wasteful spending and getting our budget back in line.”

Americans for Security has already spent $2.2 million, according to FEC filings, in negative advertising against Bondar across TV, cable, radio, digital advertisements and mailings. One such ad calls Bondar a “rich guy from Dallas trying to buy a congressional seat here in Oklahoma.”

Defending Main Street PAC, which supports business-friendly Republicans, has spent $345,600 against Bondar and just over $48,000 sending pro-Cole mailers. Additionally, the National Association of Realtors PAC spent $24,700 on a pro-Cole digital campaign.

Cole and his campaign are hitting Bondar for his lack of longstanding ties to Oklahoma and the district.

“The guy literally voted in the Texas primary in March. He doesn’t own a home in Oklahoma,” Cole said.

Bondar grew up in rural Wisconsin before eventually landing in Illinois, where he operated an insurance business. He said he sold that business in 2021 and moved to Texas.

“My opponent wants to label me as a Texas guy, all this kind of thing, and put labels on me, but I’ve been around in a number of different states,” he said. “I think our country and the state of Oklahoma needs new representation … so I decided to make a run for this particular seat.”

Bondar pointed to Oklahoma law which doesn’t require individuals to live in the state in order to run for Congress.

The state follows Article I of the Constitution, which simply says that need to be at least 25 years old, be U.S. citizens, and live in the state “when elected.” Bondar said he has bought land in Caddo, Okla., to build a home on, though that land is not in Cole’s district. He said he is currently living in a rental in Stonewall, Okla., a small town in the 4th District.

He said Cole is trying to distract voters from his record by bringing up Bondar’s residency.

“The fact that I’m in Oklahoma 20 miles outside of a district isn’t necessarily an issue that is germane to this race,” he said.

He said Cole’s argument that he is trying to buy the seat is “laughable” as he would have gone after a more vulnerable incumbent if his only priority was getting elected.

“If I was doing it for my personal gain, I would pick off an easy seat, that is somebody who is not as heavily connected in D.C.,” he said. “But what I’m doing is I’m trying to make a difference to create change that’s necessary.”

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