OKLAHOMA CITY Three Oklahoma Republicans have tossed their hats into the ring to replace outgoing U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, with each candidate pledging to overturn President Barack Obama's health care reforms and cut government spending.
Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon and U.S. Congressman James Lankford and Jason Weger, a Norman paramedic, have said they will run in the June 24 Republican primary.
Analysts said the winner of the primary will likely be the candidate who brandishes the staunchest conservative credentials. The winning Republican will also be the favorite to win November's special election to replace Coburn in Oklahoma, which has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1978.
The likely winner will probably be to the right of Coburn, who is stepping down at the end of the current congressional session. While conservative, Coburn has criticized Tea Party darling and fellow Republican, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
In nine years in the Senate, Coburn earned a reputation as a blunt-speaking conservative who waged war against federal waste and denounced what he called a "dysfunctional Washington."
But last year, he criticized Cruz for tactics that led to the government shutdown, saying the campaign was "intellectually dishonest". In turn, Coburn was raked over the coals by some in the party for not being conservative enough.
No major polls have been released but Shannon and Lankford are far better known in the state than political novice Weger.
Shannon announced his decision to run on Tuesday, saying in a news conference that he would "go to Washington and say 'no' to the spending and the debt."
Trav Robertson, executive director for the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said Oklahoma State Senator Constance Johnson and Tulsa attorney and businessman Clark Brewster have indicated they will run for the seat on the Democratic ticket.
Johnson told Reuters on Friday she has not decided yet.
In the Republican field, Shannon previously worked for retired U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, a former football star who later became one of the few African-American Republicans in Congress.
Lankford said he was running to address the health care law, known as Obamacare, and to slash the national debt. Lankford ran a youth camp and coordinated missionary trips before being elected to the U.S. Congress in 2010.
Weger has called for cuts in corporate taxes and in government spending.
The Tea Party is expected to prod the candidates to the right, and could line up a potential Republican contender if those in the field show any signs of wavering when it comes to cutting government spending and overturning Obamacare, local media reports said.
In the 100-seat Senate, where Republicans need to win a net six seats in the November 4 elections to reclaim a majority, Democrats must defend seats in seven states where Republican Mitt Romney beat Obama in 2012.
Obama's ratings are particularly low in those states: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.
Coburn, 65, is a two-term senator elected in 2004. He announced earlier this month that he would leave the Senate amid news that he was battling a recurrence of prostate cancer.
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by David Gregorio)