Oklahoma. With its wide ranges, tornado alleys and young, upstart NBA franchise, it's the last place you'd think of when considering black political hotbeds. But as Sen. Tom Coburn prepares to retire after a yearslong battle with cancer, black Republicans in the Sooner State are seeking to flip that script on its head.
A crowded Senate-primary field is emerging, with conservative Republican powerhouses eyeing the reliably red seat as a career step to the next level. That landscape, set against the larger battle of wills between establishment Republicans, evangelical conservatives and mosquito-buzzing Tea Party irritants, is actually being shaped and shifted by a fairly influential tag team of black Republicans with national clout.
Young Oklahoma state House Speaker T.W. Shannon just announced his bid last week. And another name floating around is that of Shannon's former boss: J.C. Watts. The former congressman, once a rising star in the Republican Party who rode in on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" wave, abruptly cut short his visible political career in pursuit of evangelical ministries and consulting contracts.
Both men are already polling pretty well for black politicians from a Southwestern state, the former congressional superstar doing much better than his former senior aide-turned-noted up-and-comer. When a Harper Polling survey dropped this month, Watts' name immediately jumped to the front of a standing-room-only pack of Republican hopefuls with a favorability rating of 72 percent. He also broke out with a slim 3 percent lead over Rep. James Lankford in a hypothetical matchup, while Shannon is double digits behind on the primary ballot.
That poll, however, came out days before Shannon announced. The game enters a new week, and Shannon carries significant weight among state conservatives and evangelicals, possibly more so than Lankford, who just has name ID.
So here's the big question: Is Watts going to jump in and lock this thing up with his vast fundraising network and conservative, as well as evangelical, bona fides?
"Surprisingly, he's not," said a senior operative close to Watts who spoke on condition of anonymity. Even as Watts polls at the top in the Senate race, " ... he'd rather preach, minister and serve in other low-key ways." Several seconds later, however, the source was also mentioning Watts as national party chair and even president. (President J.C. Watts? Really, fam?) "He could win (the Senate seat) without even trying. Yet he's not interested."
But according to sources, Watts is also conflicted by the entrance of his former confidant Shannon. Rather than run against Shannon – a scenario that not only would complicate their friendship but also would make Watts look petty – the former Orange Bowl-winning quarterback is opening up his Rolodex of resources to the state House speaker.
"Plus, Watts isn't interested in running for office," says a prominent conservative activist with close ties to the former congressman who spoke to The Root on strict condition of anonymity. "Watts wants a seven-figure minority-outreach contract from the Republican National Committee. He's been going after that for years."
In some respects, black Republicans are running the show in Sooner Land – at least for the moment. Even if Watts doesn't enter the race, he can control it. Shannon has a lot of ground to cover from the outset, but he's got three factors playing to his advantage: 1) He automatically gets plugged into Watts' network, 2) He's the most powerful lawmaker in the state and ... 3) He's part Chickasaw Nation.
If you haven't noticed, the Chickasaw Nation is running things in Oklahoma. The Native American tribe is already airing sleek tourism TV ads for the state during "Meet the Press" commercial breaks. And it is expected to drop a ton of loot on Shannon's Senate bid.
Which moves these black Republicans make will dramatically dictate the outcome of the race. Oklahoma could very well send the current U.S. Senate its third African American. If Republicans retake the Senate in 2014 – and they are very much on the cusp of doing so, based on recent polling projections – the color-splashing optics will look better for a party desperately seeking diversity.
Still, diversity will be a tough sell for a conservative, Tea Party-strangled political organization that's among the most racially unwelcome institutions in the United States. And the new crop of black conservatives could be old wine in a new bottle. In the end, they hail from majority-white jurisdictions or other places where they're more beholden to Southern-white political interests than empathetic to the needs of underserved black communities in their states and beyond.
(Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.)