T. W. Shannon seemed to have everything set up for his U.S. Senate run. Sen. Tom Coburn left office two years early, creating a special election. Shannon had been named the first African American House Speaker from the state of Oklahoma. He was also the youngest House Speaker in Oklahoma. He benefitted from media attention. He had the blessing of the Tea Party. He appeared to have Rep. James Lankford on the ropes.
Why didn’t he win?
Not only did Rep. Lankford finish first, but he won big, getting over 50 percent of the vote. Anything less and he would have faced Shannon in a runoff. And with seven candidates, the prospects for a low-turnout runoff would have meant Shannon had the advantage.
But Shannon lost by a surprising amount. And it’s because Shannon didn’t do what many successful African American candidates do: He should have run for lower statewide office.
I know what you’re thinking…that’s not fair. Rep. Lankford didn’t have to run for statewide office before he sought the Senate in the special election. That’s true. But it’s different for African American candidates, even Republicans.
Years ago, Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said that African Americans had to be twice as experienced as their opponents to win. He should know, having won the Virginia gubernatorial race to become the first ever African American Governor since Reconstruction, in a Southern state, no less.
Wilder didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk, or at least ran for it. After a lengthy career in the state senate, he opted to run for the Lt. Governor slot. Winning that contest in 1985 gave him statewide experience, both in campaigning and in public service for all of Virginia. It also showed he could win a race where whites were a majority. Four years later, he made history in the governor’s race against Marshall Coleman, a former state legislator.
And it’s not just African American Democrats that this works for. African American Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke ran for the Attorney General post and won before going for the U.S. Senate. It helped the liberal Republican get by a Massachusetts Democratic Governor in 1966.
Research of mine into 45 African Americans who ran for the senate or governor’s office since 1966 reveals that four of ten who had statewide experience won their contests. That’s not so bad, when you see that only 4 of 35 African Americans without statewide experience won.
So there is the occasional Barack Obama or Deval Patrick, but if you’re an African American candidate who wants to win, running for Lt. Governor or Attorney General first, or State Auditor, State Labor Commissioner or State Agricultural Commissioner beforehand might be a better move.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.