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February 19, 2014

Legislating more policy than politics

ENID, Okla. — Like the man he’s running to replace in the U.S. Senate, James Lankford sees himself as a “nuts-and-bolts” guy.

That kind of procedural conservatism, with subdued rhetoric and policy-focused legislating, has helped make retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn a respected lawmaker during his own career. Lankford sees himself in that mold, and intimated Wednesday he values progress over press conferences.

Lankford was in Enid to raise money and help expand his image beyond Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District. He has represented central Oklahoma in Congress since 2010. The Republican launched his Senate campaign after Coburn, R-Okla., announced he would retire within a year. Coburn was elected to the Senate in 2004.

Lankford, a former pastor and director of Falls Creek Youth Camp, already faces allegations he’s not conservative enough to represent Oklahoma. He’s been labeled a “status quo” Republican. The Senate Conservatives Fund said it couldn’t count on him to fight for conservative principles. Club for Growth finds his campaign hard to support and an Oklahoma tea party group has called him out for “liberal” votes.

A lot of that criticism, he said, comes his way because he’s not “loud” enough.

“They want me to go yell more. But I’m going to go work,” Lankford said. “They don’t disagree with my policies; they want my approach to be louder. That’s not who I am, and quite frankly, that’s not who most Oklahomans are. We’re a pretty polite group as a whole, with some notable exceptions.”

That attitude comes through in his stated policy goals. When asked to name five top issues he wants to tackle in the Senate, he cited energy independence, a balanced budget, eliminating duplication in federal programs, improving transportation infrastructure and expanding states’ rights to make up for federal inefficiencies.

“I’m well aware they’re not the big, sexy issues. But these are the things we can get done and that will matter long-term to the nation,” Lankford said.

He asserts his attitude toward lawmaking isn’t about compromise. Instead, “I’m much better at finding common ground because I’m not good at sacrificing my principles,” he said.

Deals should start with policies both sides of the aisle can agree on, he added.

“I can be a conservative but I’m not mad about it. I want to be able to win people to my position, and I most of the time don’t win them to my position yelling at them louder,” Lankford said. “Most people don’t like that, and I think that’s what turns off a lot of people to conservative principles. Conservatism ... defined by volume rather than by ideas — I have a problem with that. That’s not going to help us win over people.”

Lankford was careful to clarify that he does oppose Obamacare, and that its replacement is an obvious policy goal. His problem is with all the talk of repealing it, since there have been fewer alternative proposals. He expects to bring a law to the floor next week that lets states control their own health-care mechanism, to essentially let states either stay with President Barack Obama’s signature health care plan or pick one of their own.

Every Republican primary election focuses on which candidate is more conservative, he said.

“I’m not a person who’s going to yell and poke someone in the eye. I’m going to sit down with somebody, work out our differences, find a way to resolve it the most conservative way we can possibly do it,” said Lankford. “Our budget is so far out of balance, you can’t just walk up and say, ‘I’m going to shut the whole government down,’ and somehow it’ll be miraculously solved. You have to actually set a proposal and say, ‘Here’s where we need to go back to balance.’”

That’s why he’s willing to increase the nation’s debt ceiling, as long as the vote is conditional on resolving some of that debt.

“I think debt ceiling votes should talk about debt,” he said. “If they don’t help us get back to that process to deal with the debt, I’m not going to support it.”

Lankford’s main opponent so far is state Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, who gave up his position as speaker of the Oklahoma House to focus on his campaign. The two are friends, Lankford said. He declined to offer contrasts.

“I really don’t get into back and forth. I’m going to talk about what I believe and let him talk about what he believes, then go from there. I’m going to try to be as positive as I can possibly be,” he said. “I have a real odd belief that you can live the greatest commandment and do politics at the same time. I have people who disagree with me, but I think it can be done.”

Former state Sen. Randy Brogdon has said he’s considering a Senate run, but he hasn’t announced a campaign yet.

Lankford said he’s already building a field team and hopes to raise about $3 million by October. His congressional campaign garnered 4,000 donors, many of whom gave small amounts.

“I want to do that again. But with a five-month race, I also have to have folks that are going to give significant dollars as well, that believe in what I want to accomplish,” he said.

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