Sen. James Lankford stood on the Senate floor in the afternoon of January 6, explaining why he opposed certifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory. He said that there was a “constitutional crisis in our country” not because many Republicans rejected the election’s verdict, but because “millions of Americans are being told to sit down and shut up.”
A couple minutes later, a staffer interrupted the Oklahoma Republican’s speech, and urged every senator to evacuate. That night, after a pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol, attacked police officers and forced its representatives to seek shelter, Lankford changed his position, voting to certify the 2020 election, and announced that the Senate would work “to set a peaceful example.”
But instead of salving the wounds of a violent riot, Lankford’s vote has only opened them in Oklahoma. Some of Trump’s supporters are now considering supporting Lankford’s Republican challenger — 29-year-old pastor Jackson Lahmeyer — even though Trump himself hasn’t yet endorsed anyone, while the state’s Democrats continue to criticize the senator for opposing certification in the first place.
Facing a backlash from the left and from some on the pro-Trump right, Lankford acknowledged in an interview that Biden is president but questioned whether his victory was valid.
“Biden is the constitutional President. No question about that,” Lankford told CNN. “Are there questions that are still hanging out there? Yes.”
When asked if those questions would’ve changed the outcome of the 2020 race, Lankford replied, “There is no way to know because we can’t get a full answer to some of them.”
“I am not trying to be coy about it,” he added. “It’s unknown at this point. I just want all the questions answered so people can know one way or the other on it.”
Biden defeated former President Donald Trump 306-232 in the Electoral College. There were numerous recounts reiterating the outcome. Trump’s legal team and his supporters failed in dozens of contests in court. Yet Trump’s lie that the election was “stolen” has convinced a majority of Republicans, shaping the future of the GOP and creating a litmus test in the US Senate race in Oklahoma.
In recent weeks, state party chairman John Bennett endorsed Lahmeyer, a decision that Lankford acknowledged was an “unheard of” break from a top party official who should be loyal, or at least neutral, to an incumbent senator. And on July 17, Lankford narrowly defeated a measure by members of the Oklahoma Republican Party to censure him in a reported 93 to 122 vote. The nonbinding resolution also called for him to resign.
In an interview with CNN, Lahmeyer is claiming the “momentum” on the race, building a Senate campaign out of a simple falsehood.
“I know Donald Trump won the 2020 election,” Lahmeyer said. “You’re going to try to actually say, ‘Joe Biden got 80 million votes’? Nobody honestly believes that.”
Lankford is still the clear frontrunner. The incumbent voted with Trump nearly 90% of the time. He boasts the endorsements of the state’s governor, lieutenant governor and almost all of Oklahoma’s members in Congress. He has a campaign war chest with almost $1.5 million more on hand than Lahmeyer and the backing of the Senate’s campaign arm.
Lahmeyer is a political newcomer boasting the support of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who received from the former president a pardon after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.
But after Lankford’s vote to certify the election, some Oklahoma Republican activists who believe Trump won have come out against the senator. Kyle Brown, the GOP chairman for Logan County north of Oklahoma City, said he supported Lahmeyer even though it’s an “uphill battle,” blasting Lankford’s “inability to take a stand for anything.” Brown said the pastor has a path to victory “if people still remember and stay disgruntled.”
In the past couple of months, Lankford has taken steps to assuage his critics. In January, Lankford apologized to the Black community in Oklahoma, observing the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, for initially opposing the certification of the election. Leaders of the Black community claimed he would disenfranchise Black voters in battleground states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan. And in May, Lankford stepped down from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.
But neither the pro-Trump right nor the Democrats seem appeased. Lahmeyer told CNN it was a “racist commission” that Lankford should never have been on in the first place; Oklahoma Democratic party chair Alicia Andrews found his apology letter “cringy, disgusting and tone deaf.”
Lankford defends his conservative credentials
In July, Lankford announced his opposition to Biden nominees in protest of Biden not continuing to build Trump’s wall on the US-Mexico border and called for a boycott of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream after the company pulled its products out of the West Bank. Lankford proposed an amendment replacing one federal holiday — Columbus Day — with Juneteenth to save taxpayer money, and then withdrew it amid criticism.
In an interview, Lankford said that he has “a lot of support” and said that it’s up to voters, not the state party, to determine the litmus test for conservatism. He argued that some people back home have gone too far in emulating Trump but declined to say whether he sought the former President’s endorsement.
“It’s interesting. I do find some people saying they’re trying to out Trump Trump,” Lankford told CNN. “Some people have a belief that conservatism is about who’s angriest and who’s loudest. I don’t think that actually wins the day; it’s a set of ideas that actually wins the day.”
While many Republicans have paid Trump a visit to earn his endorsement or try and win his support, Lankford hasn’t made such a pilgrimage to Trump’s homes in Florida or New Jersey. Asked if he wanted Trump’s support, Lankford treated it as no more weighty than any of the other GOP endorsements he’d received. “Sure. Why not?” he asked. “I’ll add as many as I can.”
The former President is now using the second impeachment trial as the ultimate loyalty test. He has pledged to campaign in 2022 against 11 Republicans: the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him on the charge “incitement of insurrection”, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict him.
But even some Republicans like Lankford, who voted to acquit Trump, have drawn primary opponents even more devoted to the former President. Trump has endorsed North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd and Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, two Republicans who led the charge in Congress to overturn the election, for Senate, even though a former governor, Congressman, ambassador and business leader are running against them. The low-key Arkansas Sen. John Boozman is facing GOP challengers after saying that Trump bears “some responsibility” for January 6 — in his statement explaining his vote to acquit.
Lankford likewise said he acquitted Trump because the Senate can’t remove someone from office who’s already gone, although convicting Trump would’ve also disqualified from holding future office as well. That vote likely prevented some political fallout in Oklahoma, where Trump won all 77 counties, beating Biden by 33 points. In 2020, Trump did better in only Wyoming and West Virginia.
The split within the state GOP over January 6 was reflected by the state’s congressional delegation. All five of Oklahoma’s House members voted against certifying the election. But Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe voted with Lankford for it, defending it as “the constitutional vote.”
“I don’t think there is anyone who has voted [further to the] right than I have in terms of conservative votes,” Inhofe said. “There is no reason to have a test that is predicated on one particular issue.”