On Thursday evening, conservative lightning rods Sarah Palin and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz took a stage in Oklahoma and threw their weight behind T.W. Shannon, a rising GOP star vying for an open U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma.
“I’ve heard you can tell a lot about a man by the friends he keeps,” Shannon said. “What do you think of my friends?”
A month ago, Shannon’s campaign to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Tom Coburn was a longshot. But in recent weeks, a host of endorsements by high-profile conservatives – including Palin, Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee and Dr. Ben Carson – have sent a surge through Shannon’s campaign to beat out Rep. James Lankford, his main rival in an upcoming Republican primary.
Shannon recently stepped down as speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives to run for Coburn’s seat. Observers see Shannon as an embodiment of a fresh-look GOP. Shannon, who is African-American and an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation tribe, offers both a strong conservative track record and a cultural counter-balance to the image of an aging, white Republican party.
Shannon’s polling numbers have jumped 35 points, slimming the margin between Shannon and Lankfrod to less than 10 points, according to a new poll commissioned by a conservative group supporting Shannon.
When Shannon became speaker of the Oklahoma House in 2013, he became the state legislature’s first black and youngest-ever speaker at 34 years old.
Shannon, a devout Christian, is very much the hometown boy done good. He attended a local high school and college and married his college sweetheart. He’s been mentored by popular black Oklahoma Republicans like former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, and he has enjoyed wide support from black voters.
“I didn’t learn my conserve principles from watching Fox News,” Shannon said in an interview with Fox Business this week. “I learned my conservative principles in the pews of Bethlehem Baptist church, from my parents,” he said, referring to his family’s church in Lawton, where he grew up.
“What we’re finding plays well with voters in the state is — they want someone new and fresh and bold, someone who stands out and has a solid conservative record,” Trebor Worthen, an adviser to Shannon, told The Hill. “[Shannon] looks different; he sounds different, and he’s a fantastic communicator with a record of uniting our party here in Oklahoma. Those are all things that just connect really well with Republican voters.”
The growing momentum behind Shannon’s campaign has made the race for Coburn’s seat a competitive one. The list of candidates running for the open seat included a number of Republicans, including a former state senator and a paramedic. But Lankford and Shannon remain the front-runners to win the June 24 Republican primary.
A super-long shot Democrat, state Sen. Connie Johnson, is also vying for the seat.
While Lankford has publicly dismissed Shannon’s surge as “spin,” a growing legion of high-profile conservatives has lined up to sing the candidate’s praises.
“Tom Coburn leaves large conservative shoes to fill as he retires from the U.S. Senate. At 6’5 feet tall, T.W. Shannon is just the leader to fill them,” Palin wrote in an endorsement on her Facebook page ”T.W. is the underdog in his race, but that’s not a position he’s unfamiliar with.”
Cruz said that “T.W. embodies the American Dream,” and called Shannon, 36, “a strong Constitutional conservative who will fight for individual liberty and help turn our country around.”
If elected, Shannon would join Democrat Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina as the country’s only black senators. Shannon is among a group of black rising stars in the Republican Party, including Mia Love of Utah and Katrina Pierson of Texas, who are both running strong races for seats in congress.
While the conservative endorsement may play well in Republican circles, the likes of Cruz and Palin could alienate black and Democratic voters that had long supported Shannon despite his party affiliation.
Palin’s and Cruz’s conservative messages often comes with problematic baggage, a cache that Shannon has largely avoided as a respected member of the black community and member of Oklahoma’s six-member Legislative Black Caucus.
“We differ in policy, but as a man he is a commendable, respectable married man with high morals and high standards,” Oklahoma state Democratic Rep. Anastasia Pittman, chair of the black caucus and co-chair of the Native American caucus, told msnbc. Pittman said she thought that the Palin and Cruz endorsements in particular could be “polarizing.”
“Maybe they sat down and did the math, maybe they crunched the statistical values and said if you do this, you don’t really need the African American vote,” she said. “I think Palin is just looking for a kite to hang her wagon on. She’s got a load and a bunch of baggage and she wants to get on the first thing smoking.”