By SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Republican US Senator James Lankford appears to have all the conservative credentials he needs to be re-elected in the deep red Oklahoma.
A devout Baptist, Lankford led the country’s largest Christian youth camp for more than a decade. He regularly speaks out against abortion and what he calls excessive government spending. And his voting record in the Senate matched the position of former President Donald Trump nearly 90% of the time.
But like several other seemingly safe GOP incumbents, Lankford, who didn’t even draw a major opponent in 2016, is under heavy attack by a challenger in his own party. The antagonist is a 29-year-old evangelical pastor and political freshman who managed to lure more than 2,000 people to a “freedom rally” headed by Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, which Lankford was accused of being non-conservative to be enough.
“When James (Lankford) confirmed the big lie, he joined the big lie,” Jackson Lahmeyer told the noisy crowd in Norman, citing Lankford’s failure to support Trump’s false claims about the election result. “The 2020 presidential election – that was a stolen election and we will never let this happen again. The country’s GOP chairman, John Bennett, already supported Lahmeyer in the race.
Similar scenes are playing out in other red states, where far-right challengers are feeling Republican anger over Trump’s loss of the election and coronavirus-related lockdowns. Some incumbents are suddenly struggling to defend their right flank, fueling their own rhetoric on social media, and tearing up President Joe Biden at every opportunity.
In Texas, GOP Governor Greg Abbott, facing controversial re-election next year, is pushing for looser gun laws than ever and proposing unprecedented government action, including a promise to build more walls on the Mexican border.
“I think it’s unequivocally due to the 2020 election aftermath and the uprising, and former President Trump’s allegations of election fraud,” said Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.
Some Conservative incumbents are obvious right-wing challenges – notably, US MPs Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Anthony Gonzalez in Ohio, who voted for impeachment against Trump. The misdemeanor of Georgia Governor Brian Kemp refused to prevent Georgia’s electoral votes from awarding Biden.
But with the upcoming 2022 election cycle, the backlash also touches those who have consistently supported Trump in countless controversies. Texas’ Abbott reiterated Trump’s partisan positions and has raised $ 55 million in campaign money, more than any incumbent governor in history.
But he drew a challenge from Allen West, who until recently was chairman of the Texas GOP. West, a tea party fire and former Florida Congressman, has attacked Abbott’s leadership after the Democrats temporarily thwarted a GOP voting bill by moving to Washington.
And it can attract a lot. Last year West held a boisterous rally outside the governor’s mansion to call for an end to coronavirus lockdown.
“We can’t sit around doing nothing,” West said to supporters in South Texas during one of his first campaign stops.
Winning a primary is probably more than many challengers, including West, can expect. But they succeed in pushing the party further to the right and at the same time sharpening their own profile as public figures.
Republican incumbents have faced challenges from the right in the past, but “Trump took a different name and turn this time around,” said Pat McFerron, a Republican strategist and pollster in Oklahoma.
“When we become more confident with the media we consume, people find like-minded people on various social media channels and think that they are in greater numbers than they are and feel they have a chance”, he said.
In Arkansas, Republican US Senator John Boozman, a two-time incumbent, has attracted several GOP challengers, including the owner of a shooting range that drew national attention for banning Muslims. Another is a retired Arkansas Razorbacks soccer player whose campaign launch ad shows him firing an assault rifle and complains that the Washington Democrats have been “taken over by radical socialists.”
Boozman’s opponents have criticized him for confirming the presidential election results. He can also draw fire because he is unusually meek for such a charged time. While in the past he has focused on agriculture and state services for veterans, he now mentions Trump frequently in his campaign emails and even offered tickets to a Trump rally.
Republican officials in Idaho would normally be some of the furthest right 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 holding mask burning rallies to protest coronavirus restrictions.
The anti-engagement exposure can be seen in the blue states even in the lower states. In one of Virginia’s most red-hot State House districts, a lawyer working on Trump campaign challenges defeated a seven-term incumbent in a June primary.
“I’ve seen firsthand what happens if the integrity of the elections is not upheld,” challenger Wren Williams said in an election campaign. Williams criticized Del. Charles Poindexter for not speaking out against alleged election fraud and defeated him with more than 25 points.
In Oklahoma, Lankford was shocked by the party leader’s approval of his opponent in what he believed was an “outrageous” violation of traditional party neutrality.
In response, he was quick to tighten his criticism of Biden, hammering the president on immigration in particular.
“That’s the problem,” Lankford said recently in a video from the Texas-Mexico border processing immigrants behind him. “That’s the thing Biden doesn’t want to see … this is an absolutely open border situation.”
In the current political climate, it is difficult for a Republican official to be conservative enough, Abramowitz said.
“Look at Senator Lankford, there aren’t many Republican senators as conservative as he is.”
Associate Press Writer Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho; Paul Weber of Austin, Texas and Sarah Rankin of Richmond, Virginia contributed to this report.
Copyright 2021 Associated press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.