OKLAHOMA CITY — Months of behind-the-scenes in-fighting within the state’s dominant political party spilled into the spotlight this month as a disenchanted group of Republicans attempted to do something previously unheard of in Oklahoma — censure two seated U.S. senators from their own party.
Supporters said the censure was designed to show U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe that some rank-and-file Republicans felt betrayed by their decision to certify the Electoral College votes, leading to Joe Biden’s victory. Lankford had initially announced plans to object to the certification, but changed course after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The censure vote - brewing since April - failed, but some observers said it hinted at the “inter-factional warfare” being waged in states throughout the south where the Republican Party is dominant and the so-called “Trump faction” has gained power and influence.
“This is such a big deal within the GOP because they’re having a fight over facts and reality,” said Seth C. McKee, a professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. “I mean that’s what it boils down to. Trump is putting his muscle behind a fictional account of politics. And are you going to get on board with a lie? Are you going to be honest? It’s sort of like fighting for the soul of the party in terms of do we have integrity or not?”
McKee said Republicans will see more of these “little reckonings” across the country.
“There’s a lot of disenchantment and it’s not just because Trump lost, but people are saying, ‘Did he really lose? Did he really lose because it was stolen?’ ” McKee said. He said majorities of Republicans — not just Trump supporters — believe the election was stolen. However, recounts, court reviews and other checks on the system have not supported the allegation that the election was stolen, but instead have verified the original outcome.
Support for Trump has been strong in Oklahoma with the former president winning every county during his 2020 presidential bid.
McKee said the Republican Party has seen a surge in new members thanks to Trump, but that support has exposed divides within the GOP with many supporting the former president’s “America-first policy” and his all-in approach on “cultural war” issues. Traditional Republicans, in comparison, are anti-isolationist, support free trade, and believe in science and education, McKee said.
But while an attempt to censure two sitting Republican senators was previously unheard of, members of the Oklahoma Republican Party say contentious dustups are common among the party’s elite state structure.
“Just like brothers and sisters, some days we’re all really happy with each other, and other days you’re like, ‘You go talk to Mom,’” said Denise Crosswhite Hader, who has been involved in the state’s Republican Party for nearly three decades.
Crosswhite Hader, now a Republican state lawmaker, said infighting over the future of the party has been almost cyclical. She recalls it dating back to 1992 when she worked on a campaign that led to the defeat of a sitting congressman. Heading into the 2022 election cycle, Crosswhite Hader said there are differing opinions over the direction of the GOP, and the latest wave of dissension is fueled by “the same angst that’s throughout all our political spectrum right now.”
“People have different aspirations, goals, what they want to do, what they want to see done, and it’s like do you want to put the sweat equity into it and try to make a difference or do you want to just let it go.”
Chad Alexander, a former state party chairman, said division can be dangerous for the state GOP, which is tasked with uniting and electing Republicans to office. Still, he said the latest battle involved only a small number of Republicans. Only about 1,400 Republicans are actively involved in shaping party politics, but there are about 1.1 million registered Republican voters.
“I think to a certain extent Republicans got a little bit spoiled about winning statewide elections,” he said. “But when you start out with the party being divided at a primary with the state leadership of the party being involved, how are you going to unite the party after the primaries? How do you try to unite the party after you’ve worked against a sitting senator for a year?”
The best way to blow the 2022 elections is to be divided and fight each other, he said.
“I think the state party needs to take a hard look in the mirror,” he said, adding that in order to unify the Republican Party for the 2022 elections, they need to stay out of primaries and let the voters who are registered Republicans vote in the primary and then rally around that nominee.
“Our political opposition is the Democrat Party. It is not within our own party,” he said.
John Bennett, the state party chair, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Lankford declined response for this story, but sent out an earlier statement that indicated he had the backing of voters statewide and financial support. He said that he’ll continue to fight for Republican causes in Washington.
But Don Spencer, a member of the Logan County GOP, said if people can’t get state legislation passed, there’s no one to blame but the Republicans. They hold a supermajority in the Legislature and control every statewide office.
What Oklahomans are seeing for the first time is “true leadership,” he said.
“Either you’re going to work with the party, defend the party, protect the party, as far as constitutional rights, or we will find someone that will,” Spencer said. “It’s nothing personal.”
He likened the current “healthy interaction” in the party to the creation of the Republican Party in the 1850s.
“Basically, we’re not creating it, we are taking it back to its original standpoint,” Spencer said. “(It) is about liberty first. And so if someone will not protect that liberty, we will find someone that will.”
Spencer, who also heads the state’s Second Amendment Association, said a lot of members believe Trump wasn’t conservative enough, but he “fought like hell” for them.
He said he voted for the censure and that he continues to dispute the election results. Still he said there were about 70 people in the room who refused to pick a side. The censure vote, which occurred behind closed doors, failed by just 29 votes.
David Pickle, Adair County GOP chair and state committee member, said the Oklahoma GOP had never attempted anything like that before.
“I didn’t feel like it was good for the party to bring it up,” he said. “I just felt like that was the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
But he said the debate “showed some maturity we hadn’t had in the past.”
“I was expecting fireworks but there weren’t any,” he said.
With the vote settled, he’s hopeful the party can unify.
“I think it’s fairly unified now,” he said. “I think you’ll be surprised at how well it turned out.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.