OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–A political newcomer and former Southern Baptist leader continued to surprise the political world Aug. 24 by winning the runoff in a congressional Republican primary to advance to the general election, where he will be the favorite to win a seat in the U.S. House.
James Lankford, who has never held political office, defeated Kevin Calvey 65-35 percent to win the GOP nomination for Oklahoma’s fifth district, four weeks after he pulled a come-from-behind victory to win the primary’s first round — an upset that one political expert told Politico.com was “unfathomable.” The district covers Oklahoma City.
Lankford, 42, was program director at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s Falls Creek summer camp from 1996 to 2009 but quit his position because he said he felt God was calling him to run for Congress.
A former state legislator, Calvey was endorsed by the Club for Growth and had a significant cash advantage prior to the first round, although Lankford’s first-round win gave him enough momentum to outraise Calvey in the final four weeks. Lankford also benefited by support from a strong Southern Baptist and evangelical base, as well as endorsements from Mike Huckabee and J.C. Watts.
During his acceptance speech he thanked the “normal Oklahomans” who had volunteered for his campaign and “who have a passion for our God, have a passion for our families, have a passion for our country.”
“We just seem to have this same common belief that we just want our children to have the same America that we grew up with,” he told supporters. “As a community, we’re convinced that the current set of leaders in Washington, D.C., and the House of Representatives is spending too much, is taxing too much, and cares about the next generation too little…. The United States House of Representatives no longer represents us and our values and that has to change.”
Lankford’s campaign has been different, and his acceptance speech was, too: He ended it with a prayer for the volunteers and the nation.
Oklahoma’s fifth district has not elected a Democrat since the early 1970s, and Lankford will be the general election favorite in what is already expected to be a good year for Republicans nationwide. He will face Democrat Billy Coyle and two independents.
A pro-lifer and social conservative, Lankford began sensing God calling him into politics in 2008, before President Obama won the White House. That tug on his life intensified when he learned that Rep. Mary Fallin, who currently represents the fifth district, announced she would not run for re-election but instead run for governor. He resigned his position at Falls Creek to concentrate on the campaign.
Why didn’t he begin his political career on a much smaller level, such as a run for state legislator?
“We really sensed this was what God was calling us to do. It was very specific for us; it was this particular race, this particular year,” Lankford told Baptist Press in July.
“Most of the people who do this end up in the newspaper the day after the election in the list that says, ‘And others who ran were.’ We understood the consequences — I couldn’t run Falls Creek and run for political office. I had to resign.”
Fall Creek is a high-profile camp in Oklahoma that sees around 50,000 youth visit it each summer. It calls itself the “largest Christian youth encampment in the world” and it was a year-round job for Lankford; during the off months he was preparing for the next year’s camp.
A member of Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Lankford says he’s always had an interest in political ideas but not necessarily political campaigns. He was a speech and history major at the University of Texas before going on to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he received a master of divinity degree.
“I was in speech and debate in middle school, high school, college,” he said. “My mom was a librarian, and I grew up in the library and grew up around research.”
But Lankford doesn’t view his lack of political experience as a negative. In this year’s atmosphere, it’s likely a plus. He notes that when Republicans took control of the House in 1994, a majority of the 73 House freshmen had not held political office.
Lankford said there has been a “major overreach of how the government is functioning.”
“We’re a federal system by constitutional design [and] not a national system,” he said. “What I mean by that is, a national government has a small group of leaders that runs your whole country; a federal government has a specific responsibility they do for the nation and everything else is left up to the states and to the businesses and to the people. That’s our design, that’s what’s made us so effective and that’s what we’re departing from. This is not a shot at the last two years. This has been occurring for decades now — this rapid shift away from a basic federal system.”
Lankford and his wife Cindy have two daughters ages 13 and 10.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. Watch Lankford’s acceptance speech at http://bit.ly/bfG4SS.