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Attack on Lankford reflects tensions between elected officials and their parties

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Lankford’s campaign said it brought in more than $660,000, with contributions from all 77 Oklahoma counties, during the three-month period ending June 30.

The move by the Oklahoma Republican Party’s leadership against U.S. Sen. James Lankford may be unique in its audacity, but not in its direction, political observers say.

Decades ago, at the height of their power, parties chose candidates, financed their campaigns, provided the volunteers and controlled the voters — often through patronage jobs and other means of enforcing party discipline.

But those days are long gone. Candidates are chosen in primaries, not smoked-filled rooms, and finance themselves through sophisticated fundraising operations and sometimes their own bank accounts.

The result, observers say, is increasing tension between elected officials who are increasingly independent of the party apparatus and the apparatus itself — which, in a relatively weakened condition, is often taken over by people at odds with those in power.

“The function of parties in candidate selection and in elections has changed dramatically over time,” said Oklahoma State University political science professor Joseph Anthony.

“Used to be, parties had all of this power to hand out patronage and to select candidates to run in general elections. But since the 1960s most states have adopted primary elections or some other system in which voters choose candidates. Which sort of sidelines the party,” said Anthony.

State and local parties can still raise money and recruit volunteers, but that’s increasingly difficult following a Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, which took most of the restrictions off contributions to candidates and political action committees.

Oklahoma has always used the primary system to choose candidates, and historically state and local party officials stayed out of primaries.

State Republican Party Chairman John Bennett broke with that tradition by backing Lankford’s opponent, Jackson Lahmeyer, and threatening primary opponents for any elected officials who aren’t “real Republicans.”

That has put Bennett at odds with most of the state’s most popular — and powerful — Republican office-holders, including Gov. Kevin Stitt and most of the congressional delegation.

“Trying to primary someone because they did what every senator before them has done, which is certify election results — that’s a pretty extreme place to be,” said Rachel Blum, a political scientist with the University of Oklahoma’s Carl Albert Center.

Blum said insurgencies in state and local Republican parties across the country are in some ways an extension of the tea party movement that began more than a decade ago.

“The tea party opened Pandora’s Box,” said Blum, who published a book on the subject last fall. “They made it easy, possible, visible, to flout the norms. ... One day everybody realized ... we didn’t have to follow these rules.”

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These intraparty tensions are not limited to the Republican Party in general or the Oklahoma Republican Party in particular, but the GOP’s almost total control of Oklahoma state politics makes the current situation especially visible.

It also raises questions about the future of parties.

Anthony said party identification among voters and elected officials remains strong, but the evolving role of party organizations is less certain.

Somewhat counterintuitively, one-party states like Oklahoma tend to have weaker party organizations, he said. The majority party will always win and the minority party lose — until they don’t.

Pat McFerron, a longtime Republican pollster and consultant, said he believes rank-and-file Republicans would rather see the party attacking Democrats than other Republicans.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the state party as out of touch with the overall electorate as it is right now,” McFerron said.

McFerron pointed to the recent Tulsa Public Schools bond election, which was opposed by the Tulsa County Republican Party but passed by more than 2-to-1.

“What the party says is just not relevant right now,” McFerron said.

Blum takes a somewhat different view.

While the tea party movement may have shown dissatisfied Americans how to break the unwritten rules, she said, Trump shattered the old paradigms.

He appeals, Blum said, to voters with a perceived “status threat” — that is, people who believe their station in life is under attack.

“Lankford is not the only respected Republican member of Congress who’s receiving blowback in his state because of Jan. 6,” she said. “The interesting thing about him is the nature of the problem. He did not vote to impeach Trump. ... He did what most of the other senators did after they were attacked, which was to certify the results.

“I think it will be interesting to watch in different states and different areas where that fault line is,” Blum said. “Is it ... you have to stand by (Trump) to the very end? I think that tells us a lot about where the wind is blowing.”

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Wayne Greene reads the Tulsa World editorial "Factions threaten state GOP"

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