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Race isn’t why Rep. James Lankford will win GOP Senate nomination in Oklahoma

Rep. James Lankford wants to be Oklahoma‘s next senator.

So does T.W. Shannon, a former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, who is battling Lankford to fill the unexpired term of retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, heading to a June 24 GOP primary.

Both are thorough-going conservatives, and both have high profile Tea Party endorsements, with Lankford enjoying the support of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Shannon gathering in Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to his team. This past weekend the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin turned the left’s attention to the contest and wrote in a way that made it likely that Shannon’s loss will be cast an episode in the ongoing racial politics of the country.

Fascinating narrative, but simply not the case for most voters. Many like Shannon because he has been a good legislator. Many like Lankford for the very same reason. Some oppose Lankford because he is part of House leadership. Some oppose Shannon because he’s the protege of Rep. Tom Cole, and Cole is the right arm of House Speaker John Boehner. The race will likely be won by Lankford for a reason not mentioned at all in Martin’s report: a place called Falls Creek.

Lankford ran Falls Creek for nearly a decade-and-a-half before running for Congress. The formal title of Falls Creek is “Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center,” but it is really known as Falls Creek youth camp, because that is what it has been since 1917, and while other groups use the facilities, its eight weeks of summer youth camp annually attracts 50,000 young campers. The alumni and their families and friends are legion, and they are loyal.

Do the math in your head: 50,000 mostly Baptist kids a summer, going and coming to a famed youth camp and thereafter singing its many and deserved praises. Generations of campers and their friends and families share this experience, and Lankford ran the place from 1996 to 2009. That is a calling. It is also an almost impossible-to-overstate advantage in retail politics. Race isn’t going to decide this race. Falls Creek will.

No doubt many of Martin’s readers wouldn’t believe that such a thing would be an advantage, much less an overpowering one. They might think that resume somewhat retrograde, even goofy or downright menacing. It is hard to understand what the experience gives Lankford, why many — including me — think it makes him uniquely qualified to be among the 100 senators.

I support Lankford, having met and interviewed him at the Tampa Bay GOP convention in 2012 and since, always impressed with his calm intelligence and his deep, resonant and commanding voice and the contrast it makes with his smiling, very youthful appearance. Lankford’s purposeful, serious approach to politics and calling is in sharp contrast to many in Washington who go for the fame and stay for the money. He’s a humble, talented, and very dedicated representative.

Huckabee referred to “[t]he servant leadership” of Lankford as “a rarity in Washington.”

“The idea of always being accountable, putting others first, and keeping faith in a faithless town isn’t easy, but James maintains his integrity while representing Oklahoma in Congress,” Huckabee continued.

As a long time supporter of Young Life, a different summer camp program, I have an idea of what Lankford saw and gained from his years at Falls Creek: extended and deep experience with America’s teenagers and all that burdens them in this unusual age. He has worked with them, heard their stories, helped them on their way.

The Senate has plenty of lawyers. A former camp director, a man deeply committed to kids and their futures — well, that would be a unique and very desired background for 1 in 100.

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