(BP)—A former director of an Oklahoma Baptist youth camp who had never run for political office scored a major upset in a congressional Republican primary July 27 and will advance to an Aug. 24 runoff.
James Lankford, program director at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s Falls Creek summer camp from 1996-2009, won the GOP primary for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District with 33.58 percent (18,755 votes) of the vote and advances to the runoff to face Kevin Calvey, who was the favorite and finished second at 32.48 percent (18,143 votes). One political expert quoted in Politico.com called the upset “unfathomable.”
The runoff winner will be the favorite to win the district, which has been represented by a Republican since the mid-1970s. It covers Oklahoma City. Republican Mary Fallin, its current representative, resigned to run for governor.
A former state representative, Calvey outspent Lankford roughly two-to-one, according to Politico.com, and was endorsed by several conservative organizations, including Club for Growth and Gun Owners of America. Lankford’s candidacy received boosts from endorsements by former representative J.C. Watts and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Former Oklahoma pastor and Southern Baptist Convention President Tom Elliff also backed Lankford.
A member of Oklahoma City, Quail Springs, Lankford apparently was aided by strong support by Christians and new voters. The camp he directed, Falls 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.
“God gave us favor with a lot of people,” Lankford, 42, told Baptist Press, referencing his and his wife’s years at the youth camp. “We’ve just served people for a long time. People know who we are and what we’re all about—our background and our passion for God and for people.”
Still, Lankford’s support didn’t show up in the pre-election polls. A July 13 Sooner Poll showed Calvey leading Lankford in the seven-candidate race, 28 percent to 20 percent. A March Sooner Poll had Calvey leading at 20 percent and Lankford in third place at 7 percent.
Lankford, who majored in speech and history at the University of Texas and received a master of divinity degree at Southwestern Seminary, said he began sensing God calling him into politics in September 2008. He and his wife struggled with that call for several months before deciding in March 2009 that he would run for Congress.
“It was so clear and God had confirmed it in so many ways in the previous seven months that we knew we were going to be grandparents one day telling our grandchildren about the time we didn’t follow God if we don’t do this. We had to do this,” Lankford said.
He resigned his position at Falls Creek after the 2009 summer camp and soon filed the paperwork to run for Congress. He intentionally chose not to start small and run, for instance, in a local election or for the state legislature.
“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 said.
His campaign Web site says he is a “reliable conservative Republican” who is “devoted to God, family and the constitution.” A pro-lifer and a social conservative, Lankford said several issues were on his mind in 2008 when he began sensing God’s call, including the national debt and the “overreach” of the federal government.
“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 said.
He knows the campaign will only get tougher.
“It is a single elimination tournament,” Lankford said. “There were seven of us in the first race. Now there are two of us.”