After 15 years battling government waste in the Beltway, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, last week said he’ll be stepping down after the current session of Congress, with two years left in his term.
According to the Cherokee County Election Board, a special election will be held to fill Coburn’s seat. The primary is slated for June 24, with a runoff, if necessary, set for Aug. 26. The general election will take place Nov. 4.
U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, has already announced he will run for Coburn’s seat, but lacks the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), according to the Associated Press. The SCF is instead pushing U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, to run for the spot.
Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon has also formed an exploratory committee, according to The Hill, which would give Republicans yet another potential choice.
Coburn, who has been battling a recurrence of prostate cancer, said he never planned to serve more than two terms, and has decided to focus on other areas of his life.
“My commitment to the people of Oklahoma has always been that I would serve no more than two terms,” said Coburn in a prepared statement. “Our founders saw public service and politics as a calling, rather than a career. That’s how I saw it when I first ran for office in 1994, and that’s how I still see it today. I believe it’s important to live under the laws I helped write, and even those I fought hard to block.”
Oklahoma Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, said he’d like to see a fellow state senator run for the post.
“I really don’t know much about the qualifications of Rep. Lankford, although I have heard him preach,” said Garrison. “I truly believe that Oklahoma Sen. Sean Burrage [D-Claremore] would be a great candidate. Burrage has a legal background and has served as minority leader of the Oklahoma Senate for the past two years.”
According to Burrage’s Senate homepage, he served as legislative director to U.S. Sen. David Boren, and later as special assistant director of state and federal relations to Boren when he became president of The University of Oklahoma. He earned his juris doctorate from the OU in 1993, and has been in the Senate since 2006.
Brown: State has history of distinguished service
Oklahoma Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, pointed out that since Oklahoma was admitted as a state in 1907, only 18 individuals – including the two serving now – have represented Oklahomans in the U.S. Senate. He said Oklahoma has many outstanding public servants, current and former, who would serve residents well in Coburn’s spot.
“This will be a very important election,” said Brown. “With this being a vacant seat, the field is wide open. Whomever the voters ultimately choose, the new Oklahoma senator will have some big shoes to fill. They ill be following in the footsteps of some remarkable statesmen. Previous Oklahoma senators – including Sens. Robert S. Kerr, Henry Bellmon and David Boren – set the bar very high.”
Kerr, who served from 1949 to 1963, is possibly best-known for bringing the Arkansas River Navigation System to Northeast Oklahoma. The $1.2 billion federal project created more than $3 billion in commercial and industrial development, and is still contributing to the economic growth of Oklahoma today.
“Kerr was known for putting the interest of his state before his political ambitions,” said Brown. “He ignored headline-grabbing and instead focused on matters that would benefit Oklahomans.”
Bellmon, who served from 1969 to 1981, helped secure agricultural legislation that benefited farmers and ranchers throughout the state, and often took moderate stands that put him at odds with the conservative base of the GOP.
Boren, a Democrat who served from 1979 to 1994, was often considered a centrist, known for his work in education. He helped establish the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, which recognizes outstanding public school students and teachers an established private, local funding to give academic grants to local schools. He also sponsored the National Security Education Act, which provides scholarships for studies abroad.
“When Boren left office, his approval rating was 91 percent,” said Brown. “Compare that to the approval rating of members of Congress today. It is my hope that the next U.S. senator from Oklahoma will follow the lead of these great men and actually represent their state, and their state’s best interests, in Washington, D.C.”
Local party chairs worry about “ripple effect”
Local party chairs agree they are more concerned about state elected officials tossing their hats in the ring and the ripple effect an absence would cause.
“Our political differences aside, I respect Sen. Coburn’s decision to resign in order to deal with personal issues,” said Cherokee County Democrat Chairwoman Dana Rogers. “I am not what you would consider a political insider, so I am unable to speculate as to possible replacements for the position. I do know that any current office holder will need to carefully consider whether the open race for this seat, and the potential for their loss, is significant enough for them to enter the race, thus ending their re-election bid for their current office. This could cause a ripple effect that will need to be explored carefully.”
Cherokee County Republican Chairman Shannon Grimes agrees.
“I think that more important than who will take Coburn’s place is the ripple effect that the open seat is having on races across the state,” said Grimes.
“With many looking toward that Senate seat, many more state House and other state offices are going to be open for competition, which could lead to some significant changes. Who replaces Lankford or Bridenstine if they run for the Senate? If those who seek to take Lankford and Bridenstine’s seats currently hold office, who, then, will in take their seats in Oklahoma City? No, the things that will be happening in these other races are going to be a lot more important to Oklahoma than the outcome of our unexpectedly open Senate seat.”
Grimes said though many seem to be showing interest in the post, and that Lankford and Bridenstine seem the most likely candidates.
“Given the field of likely candidates, I am somewhat ambivalent as to who I would like to see replace Coburn,” said Grimes.
“I would say that Jim Bridenstine will show more spine on fiscal issues than the others and I know he has some understanding of our monetary and Federal Reserve issues.
Grimes also appreciates that Bridenstine kept his Oklahoma support staff when he was elected, rather than replacing them with Washington insiders.
“I know [this] has kept him much more in touch with people at home and much more accessible to people at home than is the norm,” said Grimes. “In those areas, as well as his willingness to put the breaks on some of the National Security Administration activities, I think he likely sets himself apart from the other possible contenders. In the other areas – such as immigration, the drug war, foreign policy, and others – I think he and the others would likely develop similar voting records.”
Rogers wants to see fair and accurate representation, which to her is far more important than partisan politics.
“Quite frankly, I am insulted when partisan politics are more important to an elected official than accurately representing their electorate,” said Rogers.
“I hope that whoever becomes the next senator from Oklahoma is more interested in serving the people who elect her or him than their respective party. I would caution any potential candidate to remember that he or she serves at the will of the people. I implore the voters of Oklahoma support a candidate who will consider the benefit to our great state when casting their votes. Historically, those senators have been members of the Democratic Party.”
To read an online exclusive poll about Coburn’s Senate vacancy, go to tahlequah TDP.com