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The Simple Lesson of John Sullivan’s Defeat in OK-1

In what was supposed to be a snoozer election night, a little known conservative candidate, Jim Bridenstine, came out of nowhere to unseat 10-year veteran John Sullivan in conservative Oklahoma District 1.  He did so by a 7-point margin, even though he was outspent 4-1 and nobody gave him any hope of succeeding.

Even among many politicos who woke up to read about this astonishing sleeper upset, there were murmurs of “John Who?”  Well, there is a poignant lesson in John Sullivan’s loss that will go unnoticed in the media and political commentariat. 

Last week, as part of a revolutionary project of the Madison Project, I helped develop the Madison Performance Index.  We wanted to shed light on just how many members of solid Republican districts are supporters of big government.  The biggest criticism we received went something like this:

“Yes, many of these members might represent strong Republican districts, but do you think their constituents really oppose their efforts to secure subsidies for rural special interests?  These guys are actually good fits for their districts.” 

The answer is very simple.  Of course, any constituency that is acclimated to the allure of government subsidies for decades will not voice strong opposition to the pork chops they receive.  But that cuts to the core of our problem with the Republican Party.  We will never elect limited government conservatives from blue urban America.  If we are going to co-opt the rural red districts – districts that are naturally suspicious of the federal government – with special interest dependency favors, we will never elect limited government conservativeanywhere.  The reality is that we need members to speak honestly to these constituencies – that we will not over-tax and overregulate you, but we will not subsidize you either. 

That is exactly what Jim Bridenstine did in Oklahoma District 1 (R-16) this year. 

For those who haven’t connected the dots by now, John Sullivan is the lead sponsor of the T. Boone Pickens NatGas subsidy bill (H.R. 1380).  This bill would provide all manufacturers of natural gas vehicles with a $4,000 tax credit per car produced, and all consumers with a $7,500 tax credit for purchasing one of these vehicles.  Companies that install commercial fueling stations for these vehicles would be entitled to a $100,000 subsidy per station!  This, at a time when natural gas is cheap and abundant. 

Oklahoma is the birthplace of T. Boone Pickens and is home to Chesapeake Energy Corp., the biggest beneficiary of the NatGas Act.  If there is any state where NatGas subsidies would be sacrosanct, it’s Oklahoma.  In fact, even Tom Coburn, who is known to despise special tax preferences, voted for the Burr-Menendez Senate version of Sullivan’s bill. 

Feeling comfortable in his home crowd, Sullivan proudly defended his support for the NatGas Act during a debate two weeks ago.  But Jim Bridenstine spoke to the inner-core of the conservative Oklahoma crowd.  He called the bill a “big-government boondoggle” and boldly declared that “we ought not let Washington, D.C., control free markets with tax subsidies.” 

As they say, the rest is history.  

This must serve as an enduring lesson for those who desire to let the free market work – at least in the most conservative parts of the country.      

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