OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Republican U.S. Senator James Lankford would appear to have all the conservative credentials he would need to get re-elected in deep red Oklahoma.
A devout Baptist, Lankford served as the director of the country’s largest Christian youth camp for more than a decade. He regularly denounces abortion and what he calls excessive government spending. And his Senate voting record aligned with former President Donald Trump almost 90 percent of the time.
But like several other seemingly secure GOP incumbents, Lankford, who didn’t even shoot a main opponent in 2016, finds himself under fierce attacks from a challenger from his own party. The antagonist is a 29-year-old evangelical minister and political newcomer who managed to attract over 2,000 people to a “Rally for Freedom” led by former Donald Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, during which Lankford was accused of not being conservative enough.
“When James (Lankford) certified the big lie, he joined the big lie,” Jackson Lahmeyer told Norman’s boisterous crowd, citing Lankford’s failure to endorse Trump’s false claims about the election results. elections and we will never allow that to happen again. State GOP Chairman John Bennett has previously backed Lahmeyer in the race.
Similar scenes are unfolding in other Red states where far-right challengers are exploiting Republicans’ anger over Trump’s election defeat and coronavirus lockdowns. Some incumbents are suddenly scrambling to defend their right flank, heating up their own rhetoric on social media and tearing President Joe Biden apart at every opportunity.
In Texas, GOP Governor Greg Abbott, who faces a contested re-election primary next year, is pushing more lenient gun laws he has never passed and is proposing unprecedented state action, including promises to build more walls on the Mexican border.
“I think this is undoubtedly attributable to the aftermath of the 2020 election and the insurgency and allegations of electoral fraud by former President Trump,” said Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University of ‘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 prevent Georgia’s electoral votes from being awarded to Biden.
But as the 2022 election cycle approaches, the backlash is also affecting even those who have consistently backed Trump through countless controversies. Abbott of Texas echoed Trump’s partisan positions and amassed $ 55 million in campaign funds, more than any sitting governor in history.
But it drew a challenge from Allen West, who until recently was the president of the Texas GOP. West, a tea party member and former congressman from Florida, attacked Abbott’s leadership after Democrats temporarily thwarted a GOP voting bill by decamping to Washington.
And it can attract a crowd. Last year, West led a noisy rally outside the governor’s mansion to demand an end to coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
“We can’t just sit there and do nothing,” West told fans in South Texas during one of his first campaign stoppages.
In fact, winning a primary is probably more than many challengers, including West, can expect. But they can be successful in pushing the party further to the right while also making themselves known as public figures.
Republican officials have faced challenges from the right in the past, but “Trump put on a different name and spin” this time around, said Pat McFerron, Republican strategist and pollster in Oklahoma.
“As we become more and more selective with the media we consume, people find like-minded people on different social media channels and they think they outnumber them and feel they have an opportunity, ”he said.
In Arkansas, two-term Republican U.S. Senator John Boozman drew several GOP challengers, including the owner of a gun stand that gained national attention for banning Muslims. Another is a former Arkansas Razorbacks football player whose campaign launch ad shows him firing an assault rifle and complaining that Democrats in Washington have been “taken over by radical socialists.”
Opponents of Boozman criticized him for having certified the results of the presidential election. It can also attract fire because it is exceptionally mild during such a busy time. While he has historically focused on the state’s agricultural industry and veteran services, he now frequently mentions Trump in his campaign emails and has even offered tickets to a Trump rally.
Republican officials in Idaho would generally be seen as part of the country’s far right, but they too are under pressure. Anti-government activist Ammon Bundy has announced plans to challenge outgoing GOP governor Brad Little in 2022, and the Bundy People’s Rights Organization was among those who held rallies to burn masks to protest the restrictions on coronaviruses.
Anti-holder exposure can even be seen in lower level races in the Blue States. In one of Virginia’s redder State House districts, an attorney who worked on the challenges of the Trump campaign defeated a seven-term incumbent in a June primary.
“I have seen firsthand what happens when electoral integrity is not maintained,” challenger Wren Williams said in a campaign ad. Williams criticized Del. Charles Poindexter for failing to denounce the alleged electoral fraud and beat him by more than 25 points.
In Oklahoma, Lankford was rocked by the party chairman’s endorsement of his opponent, which he said was an “unheard of” violation of traditional party neutrality.
In response, he quickly stepped up his criticism of Biden, hammering the president in particular on immigration.
“That’s the problem,” Lankford said in a recent video of the Texas-Mexico border with immigrants being processed behind him. “This is the thing Biden doesn’t want you to see… this is absolutely an open border situation.”
In the current political climate, it’s difficult for a Republican official to be safe enough conservative, Abramowitz said.
“You look at Senator Lankford, there aren’t many Republican senators as conservative as he is. “
Associated Press editors 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.