OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Republican US Senator James Lankford appears to have all the conservative credentials he needs to win reelection in scarlet Oklahoma.
Lankford, a devout Baptist, was the director of the nation’s largest Christian youth camp for more than a decade. He regularly speaks out against abortion and what he describes as excessive government spending. And his vote in the Senate matched the stance of former President Donald Trump nearly 90% of the time.
But like several other seemingly safe GOP-established players, Lankford, who didn’t even draw a primary opponent in 2016, is being violently attacked by a challenger in his own side. The antagonist is a 29-year-old evangelical preacher and political newcomer who managed to lure more than 2,000 people to a “Freedom Rally” headlined by former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, accusing Lankford of not being conservative enough.
“When James (Lankford) confirmed the big lie, he joined the big lie,” Jackson Lahmeyer told the vociferous crowd in Norman, citing Lankford’s failure to endorse Trump’s false claims about the election results. “The 2020 presidential election – that was a stolen election and we will never let it happen again.” State GOP chairman John Bennett has already endorsed Lahmeyer in the race.
Similar scenes are set in other red states where far-right challengers are tapping into Republicans anger over Trump’s election loss and coronavirus-related lockdowns. Some incumbents are suddenly rushing to defend their right flank, heating up their own social media rhetoric and tearing at President Joe Biden at every opportunity.
In Texas, GOP Governor Greg Abbott, who faces controversial reelection next year, pushes through relaxed gun laws than he ever embraced before and proposed unprecedented state action, including promises to build more walls on the Mexican border.
“I think it’s undoubtedly due to the aftermath of the 2020 election and the uprising and former President Trump’s claims of voter fraud,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Some conservative incumbents are obvious targets for right-wing challenges — most notably U.S. Representatives Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Anthony Gonzalez in Ohio, who voted to impeach Trump. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s offense was refusing to block Georgia’s electoral votes from awarding Biden.
But as the 2022 election cycle approaches, the backlash is also hitting those who consistently supported Trump in numerous controversies. Abbott of Texas echoed Trump’s partisan views and has saved $55 million in campaign funds, more than any sitting governor in history.
But he gets a challenge from Allen West, who was until recently chairman of the Texas GOP. West, a burning tea party and former Florida congressman, has attacked Abbott’s leadership after Democrats temporarily thwarted a GOP voting bill by fleeing to Washington.
And he can draw a crowd. Last year, West led a rowdy demonstration outside the governor’s mansion to end the restrictions of the coronavirus.
“We can’t sit and do nothing,” West told supporters in South Texas during one of his first campaign stops.
In fact, winning a primary is probably more than many challengers, including West, can expect. But they can manage to push the party further to the right while raising their own profile as public figures.
Republican office holders have faced challenges from the right in the past, but “Trump has given it a different name this time,” said Pat McFerron, a Republican strategist and pollster in Oklahoma.
“As we become more self-selective with the media we consume, people are finding like-minded people on various social media channels and they think they are in greater numbers than they are and feel they have a chance,” he said.
In Arkansas, Republican U.S. Senator John Boozman, a two-term incumbent chairman, has attracted several GOP challengers, including a shooting range owner. which drew national attention for banning Muslims. Another is a former Arkansas Razorbacks football player whose campaign kickoff ad shows him firing an assault rifle and complains that the Democrats in Washington have been “taken over by radical socialists.”
Opponents of Boozman have criticized him for confirming the results of the presidential election. He can also make fire because he is unusually gentle for such a highly charged time. Though he has historically focused on the state’s agribusiness and veteran services, he now regularly mentions Trump in his campaign emails and even offers tickets to a Trump rally.
Republican officials in Idaho are typically ranked among the most right-wing in the country, but they too are under pressure. Anti-government activist Ammon Bundy has announced: plans to challenge incumbent GOP Governor Brad Little in 2022, and Bundy’s People’s Rights organization was among those organizing mask-burning rallies to protest coronavirus restrictions.
The anti-established exposure can even be seen in lower state races in blue states. In one of the most solid red districts of the Virginia state house, a lawyer working on the challenges of the Trump campaign defeated a seven-year incumbent in a primary in June.
“I’ve seen firsthand what happens if election integrity is not maintained,” challenger Wren Williams said in a campaign ad. Williams criticized Del. Charles Poindexter for not speaking out against alleged voter fraud, beating him by more than 25 points.
In Oklahoma, Lankford was shocked by the party chairman’s support for his opponent, which he said was an “unheard of” violation of traditional party neutrality.
In response, he has quickly stepped up his criticism of Biden, hammering the president on immigration in particular.
“This is the problem,” Lankford said in a recent video of the Texas-Mexico border, with immigrants being processed behind him. “This is what Biden doesn’t want you to see… this is definitely an open border situation.”
In the current political climate, it’s hard for a Republican official to be safely conservative enough, Abramowitz said.
“Look at Senator Lankford, there aren’t many Republican senators as conservative as he is.”
Associated Press writers Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho; Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, and Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia contributed to this report.