Republican U.S. Sen. James Lankford would seem to have all the conservative credentials he’d need to coast to reelection in deep-red Oklahoma.
A devout Baptist, Lankford was the director of the nation’s largest Christian youth camp for more than a decade. He speaks out regularly against abortion and what he describes as excessive government spending. And his voting record in the Senate aligned with former President Donald Trump’s position nearly 90% of the time.
But like several other seemingly safe GOP incumbents, Lankford, who didn’t even draw a primary opponent in 2016, finds himself under fierce attack by a challenger in his own party. The antagonist is a 29-year-old evangelical minister and political newcomer who managed to draw more than 2,000 people to a “Freedom Rally” headlined by Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, at which Lankford was accused of being not conservative enough.
“When James (Lankford) certified the big lie, he joined the big lie,” Jackson Lahmeyer told the raucous crowd in Norman, citing Lankford’s failure to endorse Trump’s false claims about the election outcome. “The 2020 presidential election — that was a stolen election and we will never, ever allow it to happen again.” The state’s GOP chairman, John Bennett, has already endorsed Lahmeyer in the race.
Similar scenes are playing out in other red states where ultra right-wing challengers are tapping into anger among Republicans over Trump’s election loss and coronavirus-related lockdowns. Some incumbents suddenly are scrambling to defend their right flank, heating up their own rhetoric on social media and ripping into President Joe Biden at every opportunity.
In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who faces a contested reelection primary next year, is pushing looser gun laws than he ever previously embraced and proposing unprecedented state actions, including promises to build more walls on the Mexican border.
“I think it’s unquestionably attributable to the aftermath of the 2020 election and the insurrection 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 — notably U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Anthony Gonzalez in Ohio, who voted to impeach Trump. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s offense was refusing to block Georgia’s electoral votes from being awarded to Biden.
But with the 2022 election cycle approaching, the backlash is also touching even those who backed Trump consistently through countless controversies. Texas’ Abbott echoed Trump’s partisan positions and has banked $55 million in campaign funds, more than any sitting governor in history.