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A Rising GOP Star In Oklahoma Aims For The U.S. Senate

The announcement by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn that he is resigning his seat at the end of the year has set up a spirited battle among Oklahoma Republicans to replace him.

Leading the pack are Rep. James Lankford and former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon. At age 36, Shannon is an up-and-coming star in the GOP, and if elected he would become the third African-American in the Senate — two of them Republicans.

On Saturday night, the Comanche County Republican Party held its annual barbecue. Along with the ribs and potato salad there was an auction, and of course, politicking, from candidates for everything from state representative to U.S. Senate.

The youngest-ever Oklahoma speaker of the House, T.W. Shannon has rubbed some constituents the wrong way with his quick rise to prominence.
Brian Naylor / NPR
The youngest-ever Oklahoma speaker of the House, T.W. Shannon has rubbed some constituents the wrong way with his quick rise to prominence.

T.W. Shannon was there, signing T-shirts.

His arrival was a bit delayed after a late flight from a fundraiser he attended in Florida. Shannon is riding a wave right now: His Senate candidacy has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and also by the Senate Conservatives Fund. He was a featured panelist at the recent CPAC conference outside Washington. But he says he's most happy here in Lawton, with his family and friends.

"This is my hometown. My house is just 2 miles west of here," Shannon said.

So what does he want to go to Washington for?

"I'm concerned about the direction of the party. I'm concerned that if we continue the trajectory that we're on, that my kids and grandkids are going to inherit a lower standard of living than I did. I hope to go to Washington, D.C., and teach the rest of the politicians there that conservative principles are what lead to prosperity," he said.

Shannon greets voters at the Comanche County, Okla., GOP barbecue on March 29.
Brian Naylor / NPR
Shannon greets voters at the Comanche County, Okla., GOP barbecue on March 29.

Among those conservative principles, Shannon sponsored a measure to require able-bodied food stamp recipients in Oklahoma to work 20 hours a week. Shannon downplays his ethnicity — he is African-American and part Chickasaw Indian.

"Yeah, my heritage is a part of who I am but it doesn't define who I am and it certainly doesn't limit me and that's what the Republican Party is about. It's about freedom and liberty," he said.

But the diversity that Shannon represents has not been the Republicans' strength. University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie says that's what makes Shannon's candidacy so vital to the GOP.

"The Republican Party is not going to be a viable entity in the United States as a whites-only club. They need African-American, Hispanic- and Asian-American votes. There are as many Indian voters as African-American voters in this state. So Shannon is important for that reason."

Before running for office himself, Shannon worked for GOP Rep. Tom Cole and former GOP Rep. J.C. Watts. Watts served four terms in the House, the only African-American Republican then in Congress.

Watts, who spoke at the Comanche County barbecue, says the GOP would be well-served by Shannon, because the party doesn't know how to connect with black voters. He compared it to Thanksgiving dinner.

"Most white people eat pumpkin pie for dessert; most black people probably eat sweet potato pie. Now that doesn't mean that we can't be together on smaller taxes, smaller government, strong education and strong national defense. But the party keeps trying to feed me pumpkin pie. I don't eat pumpkin pie; I eat sweet potato pie. I don't eat stuffing; I eat cornbread dressing," Watts said.

Shannon's victory in the June primary is by no means ensured. Polls have him trailing Lankford, although the gap appears to be narrowing.

His quick rise to prominence rubs some of his current constituents the wrong way. Terry Basham says he plans to vote for Lankford because Shannon is too often missing from local events.

"He seems to be a national person. He's a local state representative but his focus seems to be national so we don't see him at the county meetings for his constituency but you see him on Fox the next day, you see him in New York the next day, so that's why," Basham said.

But if he gives the impression of a young man in a hurry, Shannon says it's because the stakes are high.

"When I was elected the speaker of the House, I was elected the youngest speaker of the Oklahoma House, elected the youngest speaker in state history and I think if elected to the Senate, I would be the youngest member of the U.S. Senate and I think that's important. Because again, people from my generation and below — the ones I talk to — recognize that were going to be the ones paying for this out-of-control entitlement mentality. We've got to change that," he said.

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