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A Conservative Showdown in Oklahoma

There’s another round of primaries Tuesday, and most of the attention will focus on Mississippi’s Republican Senate runoff (which we’ll look at in later story). But there are a number of other intriguing races, the most important of which is the Republican Senate primary in Oklahoma. Here’s what you should know about the face-off in the Sooner State.

The candidates

Seven candidates are vying to replace Sen. Tom Coburn, who is retiring two years before his term is up. However, only two candidates will probably get more than 10 percent of the vote: U.S. Rep. James Lankford and former Oklahoma House of Representatives speaker and current state Rep. T.W. Shannon.

Both Lankford and Shannon are conservative. Still, that hasn’t stopped them from trying to distinguish themselves in style if not substance.

Before being elected in the tea party wave of 2010, Lankford was the camp director of the Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center. He rose to the fifth-highest position in the House leadership and is seen as the more establishment candidate in the race. Lankford compromised on the debt ceiling in 2011 and 2013, though not in 2014. He has the backing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, among others.

Shannon has been a member of the Oklahoma House since 2007. Notably, he is African-American and a powerful member of the Chickasaw Nation; Lankford is white. And where Lankford could be regarded as willing to make deals, Shannon is as pure on principal as they come. He is supported by most national tea party groups and politicians ranging from Ted Cruz to Sarah Palin, but many tea party groups in Oklahoma haven’t endorsed either candidate.

Lankford is a slight favorite to receive the most votes Tuesday. The HuffPollster aggregate has him with 41 percent of the vote, and Shannon with 37 percent.

Of the five other candidates, the most prominent is Randy Brogdon, a former state senator and the second-place finisher in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. He has rarely polled above 5 percent.

The rules of the game

The winning candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff in August. It’s possible that either Lankford or Shannon could reach that threshold Tuesday, but the smart money is on a runoff, because Brogdon and the other candidates will likely split the vote.

What this means nationally

First, it’s easy to overplay the tea party versus establishment angle in this race. Most local tea party groups are either backing Brogdon or nobody. That said, a victory by Shannon combined with a victory for Chris McDaniel in Mississippi would only be seen as good news for national tea party groups: They’d replace both Coburn, who was against the 2013 government shutdown, and the clearly establishment Thad Cochran of Mississippi with two ideologues.

Second, Shannon would bring diversity to the tea party and the GOP in Congress. He would become only the fourth American Indian elected to the Senate and would be only the third current African-American member. Adding Shannon would give Republicans a 2-to-1 advantage in African-American senators over the Democrats.

Either way, the Republican candidate will remain a heavy favorite to retain Coburn’s seat in the fall.

Past polling accuracy

The SoonerPoll is the only non-campaign or group-affiliated poll released in the race. Its record is not very good in Republican primaries; it missed the final margin by 18 points in the 2008 Republican presidential primary and by 22 points in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. So even though most polls have Lankford up (including the SoonerPoll by 8 points), a win for his campaign on Tuesday is far from a lock.

Bases of support

Polling and common sense tell us that Lankford will do best in the highly populous Oklahoma County and its surrounding counties — the same area he represents in Congress. Oklahoma County has been slightly more favorable to the more moderate candidates in past presidential primaries, to Lankford’s probable benefit.

Polling suggests that Shannon will do best in the eastern part of the state. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum did very well there in 2012, and the region also happens to be home to a high percentage of American Indians, though many are not of Shannon’s Chickasaw Nation. Shannon should also thrive in his home county of Comanche in southwestern Oklahoma.

Key counties

The second-most populous county in the state is Tulsa, and neither candidate can claim it as his home. Polling from the area has been mixed. If Lankford wins here, he’ll probably win the most votes statewide.

Cleveland, the third most-populous county, is just south of Oklahoma County. It’s not in Lankford’s congressional district, and it has leaned somewhat more to the conservative side than Oklahoma County in Republican presidential primaries.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.