(Reuters) - In staunchly conservative
Oklahoma, three major candidates are running in Tuesday's Republican
primary for a U.S. Senate seat, two have a shot at winning and one is
gathering attention because he is half black and half Native American.
T.W. Shannon, 36 and the youngest speaker of the House in
Oklahoma, is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and represents a bit
of diversity that has captured the attention of the national
Republican Party looking to expand its base of white voters.
But polls show U.S. Rep James Lankford, 46 and a former leader of a
massive Christian youth camp, slightly ahead of Shannon in the race
that has exposed rifts within the tea party branch of the Republican
Tea party darling Ted Cruz, a Republican U.S. senator from Texas,
has endorsed Shannon, calling him a "conservative fighter, while an
Oklahoma tea party group has rejected Shannon, saying in an open
letter he has "too many masters to serve", including Native American
Both candidates have been running as hard-right conservatives who
will defeat the Obama administration's agenda.
If neither gets a majority, the two head to a runoff in August, with
the winner emerging as the favorite for the Senate seat due to the
Republican dominance in the state.
More so than in other states, Native Americans have ingrained
themselves into Oklahoma's social fabric, making up about 9 percent
of the state's population.
This has created some backlash from ranchers who feel land grants to
tribes have been exorbitant. Social conservatives dislike the
casinos on Native American lands, seeing contributions from the
tribes to Shannon's campaign as tainted.
Shannon has said his roots have helped him bring unity.
"Chickasaw values are Oklahoma values," he said in a recent TV
Outgoing Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican who is retiring, has been
seen as keeping the playing field level, criticizing aspects of both
campaign he sees as unjust.
One reason Lankford has the edge is that he comes from a larger
constituency and is seen as better with national issues due to his
time in the U.S. House, said Oklahoma States University political
science professor Brandon Lenoir.
"The fact that Shannon is Native American and African American will
be an appealing factor for a sector of the population, but
traditionally, African Americans and Native Americans do not vote
Republican," said Lenoir.
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Nick Zieminski)