The Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate could get a lot more diverse.
T.W. Shannon, the speaker of the Oklahoma House, is expected to announce his candidacy in the special election for the Senate seat being vacated by Tom Coburn on Wednesday. Shannon, an African American and enrolled member of the Chicksaw Nation, will be the second candidate so far in the Republican primary for Coburn’s seat, joining two-term Rep. James Lankford, who represents an Oklahoma City based district on Capitol Hill.
Although Coburn will not formally resign until the end of the year, Oklahoma law allows him to give notice of his resignation in advance so that the state can time the special election to coincide with the regularly scheduled contests in 2014.
Shannon is a four-term Oklahoma state representative who was elected Speaker of that body in January 2013. Prior to serving in the Oklahoma legislature, Shannon was a congressional staffer for two Oklahoma Republicans, Reps. J.C Watts and Tom Cole. He has long been hailed as a conservative rising star and as a polished and telegenic African American Republican.
Lankford, a young evangelical social conservative, has come under criticism from conservative groups because of his role in House leadership as chair of the Republican Policy Committee. This meant that he has been tarred in the eyes of the conservative groups that led the push for the 2013 government shutdown like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has stated it would not support Lankford in a primary. The attacks on Lankford leave significant room for Shannon to run as the conservative candidate in Oklahoma’s GOP primary, even though there is little ideological daylight between the two.
If Shannon bests Lankford and goes on to win the general election in the safely red state, he’ll be the third African American member of the Senate, joining Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) and the tenth African American Senator in the history of that legislative body. He also would be the first African American Senator elected form a state west of the Mississippi.
In addition to all these firsts, Shannon would serve as an important counterpoint for a Republican Party struggling to “rebrand” itself in the aftermath of the 2012 election. The GOP would have two young charismatic and conservative African American senators, in Shannon and Tim Scott, able to help the party tout a more diverse image to the American electorate; an important asset in the post-Obama era.