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In fight over Trump loyalty, Okla. GOP chairman endorses Sen. Lankford's primary opponent

John Bennett's endorsement of Jackson Lahmeyer is rooted in Lankford’s reversal on Biden’s election certification.
Image: James Lankford
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., arrives for a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 8, 2021.Alex Brandon / AP

The Republican Party’s unflinching loyalty to former President Donald Trump is facing a fresh test in Oklahoma, where the state GOP chairman has endorsed a primary challenge to Sen. James Lankford, one of the most conservative members of the Senate.

The state chairman, John Bennett, who before securing the top party post in April was best known for anti-Islamic rhetoric and suggesting that Hillary Clinton be executed, is backing Jackson Lahmeyer, a Tulsa pastor and political newcomer, over the incumbent Lankford.

It's an unusual alliance that has left some GOP operatives aghast because party chairs typically stay neutral in primaries, especially those involving established incumbents. But it comes as Lankford has refused to repeat falsehoods about the 2020 election and support Trump's claims that the election was stolen.

The endorsement also offers the latest example of how Republicans are grappling with their view of the former president and whether fidelity to him should be a litmus test.

Intraparty tensions are already high in states like Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, where President Joe Biden won and where Republican officials and candidates now walk thin lines between praising, mollifying or angering Trump. The battle is spreading to solid Trump states such as Texas, where the conservative firebrand Allen West recently resigned as GOP chairman to launch a primary challenge against Gov. Greg Abbott, and Oklahoma.

“We have to have men and women of courage, men and women of integrity,” Lahmeyer said in an interview with NBC News. “Unfortunately, right now in the state of Oklahoma, we’re lacking that.”

Lahmeyer, who is 29 but will be the constitutionally-mandated age of 30 to serve in the Senate before the election, said Lankford embarrassed the state on Jan. 6. Lankford announced that day that he would object to the counting of Arizona's votes, but then reversed and withdrew his objection after a mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol to try to stop the certification that Biden won the election.

The final straw, Lahmeyer added, was when Lankford later apologized to Black constituents for questioning the outcome.

“I watched James from November the 3rd to January the 6th just flip-flop like a fish out of water,” Lahmeyer said. “And then, on January the 6th, he caved like an absolute coward.”

In other states, the threshold for challenging or rebuking a Republican deemed as disloyal to Trump has been higher — a vote to impeach or convict Trump. Lankford voted to acquit Trump during the impeachment trial.

In Oklahoma, Lahmeyer’s campaign comes as Bennett's state party prepares to consider a resolution to censure Lankford and the state’s other GOP senator, Jim Inhofe, “for failure to delay the certification of fraudulent electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election.” The resolution, advanced by the Osage County Republican Party, is on the agenda for the state committee’s July 17 meeting.

“The good-ol’-boy politics days are over,” Bennett told the Oklahoman this week. “I’m here for one reason, one reason only and that is to do the job that the people elected me to do — and that is to stand and fight for our constitutional republic and to get rid of those that refuse to do it.”

Lankford, 53, declined a request to comment. Even with the state party chairman actively campaigning for his opponent, he has endorsements from dozens of top Oklahoma Republicans, including Gov. Kevin Stitt. Lankford’s supporters note his wide margins of victory in a 2014 special election and 2016 campaign for a full term and are confident his reliably conservative policy principles will outweigh any shortcomings he has with Trump die-hards.

“Receiving over 900 votes of Republicans in the state convention to be chairman is not equivalent to the hundreds and thousands of votes that James Lankford won in a Republican primary and the hundreds of thousands of votes he won in general elections,” Chad Alexander, a past Oklahoma GOP chairman, said.

Besides Bennett, Lahmeyer also boasts an endorsement from Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and later was pardoned by Trump. Flynn is one of the most vocal promoters of election falsehoods, going as far as suggesting a military coup to overthrow the Biden administration — remarks he walked back after criticism. He recently appeared at a Lahmeyer event.

“Gen. Flynn got behind me and said, ‘You’re going to run and you’re going to win,’” Lahmeyer said. “And since then we’ve just taken off like a rocket.”

Several Republicans familiar with Oklahoma politics said the state party is unlike those in other states where a governor or senator may install their pick as chair and, as a result, their goals are not always aligned. Stitt, the Republican governor, has not been involved in party chair races.

One senior Republican operative said Bennett’s ascension to party chair and backing of Lahmeyer shouldn’t be seen as evidence of a change in the state’s voters, but more of a political fluke indicative of internal party dynamics.

“I don’t think there’s any grand change in the Republican Party, per se, in Oklahoma."

The operative, who requested anonymity to speak openly about a sensitive intraparty conflict, is among those who believe Bennett’s endorsement is inappropriate.

“I never got involved in primaries,” Alexander, the former state chair, said. “No state chairman should get involved in primaries. When you start with divisiveness, you’re never going to bring unity, and the party should support whoever the Republican Party voters nominate.”

Bennett did not respond to requests for comment. He has told Oklahoma media he endorsed Lahmeyer personally and not in his official capacity.

But he continues to receive criticism.

“It’s more unheard of than it is rare,” Lankford told the Tulsa World this week. “I’d say it’s highly unusual for a state party chair in any state in America to come out and say, ‘I’m not going to at least be neutral.’”

Lahmeyer argued that Bennett was open about wanting to change the party.

“Some are calling it a hostile takeover,” he added. “I don’t see it as a hostile takeover, but we are taking the party back. Keep your eye on Oklahoma. There’s a storm brewing down here.”