Oklahoma's Oh-So-Sweet Primary

The candidates are worried about outside groups' ads, but they're doing too little to differentiate themselves.

For a state known for its red dirt, there's not much mud being slung in Oklahoma right now.

Compared to Republican primaries this cycle in Nebraska and Mississippi, the race to replace Sen. Tom Coburn is a downright pillow fight. As in most Republican primaries, the differences between the candidates are subtle at best. But in Oklahoma, the campaigns' hesitance to play hardball is making what little contrast there is hard for voters to find.

Oklahomans didn't see a negative TV ad between Rep. James Lankford and former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon until three weeks before the June 24 primary, when the pro-Shannon group Oklahomans for a Conservative Future took a light hit at Lankford for his votes to raise the debt ceiling. Even then, the candidates' comments about the move were almost untenably polite.

"As brothers in Christ, Congressman Lankford and I are competitors, not enemies," Shannon's campaign said in a statement, almost apologizing for the group's ad.

"Republicans do not like distorted negative attacks on other Republicans," Lankford's campaign responded. "This type of campaigning is not the tradition of the senator we are running to replace."

Republicans in the state agree that ads from outside groups should be clear and factual, but at this point, they might be a good way to help make points the candidates themselves aren't getting at.

"I can't see anything wrong with a few more ads pointing out the differences between these two candidates," Oklahoma Republican pollster Bill Shapard said of the race. "There are some real differences between them, as Shannon touched on in his first ad, and voters need to have that made clear."

Just over two weeks out from the primary, Shannon has run one contrast ad from his campaign, and Lankford hasn't run any. The race is largely expected to go into an August runoff, but judging by the reactions from campaigns thus far, both sides have a lot of toughening up to do between now and then.

Asked why the race had stayed largely positive for so long, both sides were surprised by the question, and described what they believed to already be a knockdown, drag-out fight.

"You can be the judge on who went negative first, but just look at the New York Times article," a Shannon consultant chided, in reference to a May race profile by Jonathan Martin. "[Lankford] goes around referring to [Shannon] as a 'celebrity' and saying 'we don't need politicians who give good speeches.' It's a veiled comparison to Obama!"

Lankford's campaign was outraged that Shannon hadn't done enough to condemn the ad from his outside group. Though Shannon's email asked groups not to place his opponent next to President Obama in ads, Lankford's campaign suggested that the use of the words "Obama budget" to describe the bipartisan budget from Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray was an unfair, "shameful" attack that went unaddressed in Shannon's "late" and "gratuitous" email.

The reason the campaigns have thus far stayed clean is complicated. When Coburn announced his retirement in January, the news gave both Lankford and Shannon a late start on building up their infrastructure, including fundraising.

"Tom Coburn hurt their campaign timelines, they needed more time to up their positives before going negative," Shapard said. He scoffed at the campaigns' complaints about negativity. "Politics is a contact sport. For Lankford to say it's a negative attack "¦ welcome to the party, pal."

But according to a report from The Hill, candidates aren't the only ones who believe the race has already gone negative. Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Dave Weston said the race's tone was already a hot topic among donors, most of whom were looking for ways to nip it in the bud while still drawing a contrast between candidates.

Oklahoma political consultant Pat McFerron, who is working for Shannon in the campaign, said part of the holdup in going negative was due to the state's relative shift in politics. Though Oklahoma is considered solidly red, he said the Republican Party was still "learning how to be a majority party."

"People forget our state Senate, until four years ago, had been controlled by Democrats for our entire statehood," McFerron said. "This is the most significant race we've probably had in our state's history that is really decided in the primary. We still have a belief and structure here that you can't beat someone up too much before the general election."

Other Republicans say the campaigns' hands are tied when speaking to an extremely religious base. One consultant estimated about "70 percent of [Republican primary] voters attend church every Sunday."

"Right now they're playing nice because they don't have to do their own dirty work," Shapard said, in reference to the outside groups backing both candidates.