MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In Oklahoma this year, a special election could add a third African-American to the U.S. Senate. T.W. Shannon is the former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. At age 36, he's a rising star in the Republican Party. But he has an uphill battle in the summer primary against Congressman James Langford, in the race to succeed veteran Sen. Tom Coburn.
NPR's Brian Naylor met up with T.W. Shannon and has this profile.
UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: A hundred down, 150. I've got one, now 150. One hundred, now 150. Anywhere 100, 150...
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's Saturday night ,and the Comanche County Republican Party is holding its annual barbecue. Along with the ribs and potato salad there is an auction and, of course, politicking from candidates for everything from state rep to U.S. Senate. T.W. Shannon was there, signing T-shirts.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey, glad you made it, buddy.
T.W. SHANNON: I'm glad I made it, too.
NAYLOR: His arrival was a bit delayed after a late flight from a fundraiser he attended in Florida. Shannon has become something of a national figure. His Senate candidacy has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and the Senate Conservatives Fund. He was a featured panelist at a recent conservative political action conference back east. Still, he says, he's most happy here in Lawton, with his family and friends.
SHANNON: This is my town. You know, my house is two miles just west of here, so.
NAYLOR: So what do you want to go to Washington for?
SHANNON: Well, I'm concerned about the direction of the country. I'm concerned that if we continue down the trajectory that we're on, that my kids and grandkids are going to inherit a lower standard of living than the one that I did. I'm hoping to go to Washington, D.C., and teach the rest of the politicians there that conservative principles are what lead to prosperity.
NAYLOR: Among his works on behalf of conservative principles, Shannon sponsored a requirement that able-bodied food stamp recipients in Oklahoma work at least 20 hours a week. Shannon talks up such deeds and downplays his ethnicity, which is African-American and part Chickasaw Indian.
SHANNON: Yeah, my heritage - it's a part of who I am, but it doesn't define who I am. And it certainly doesn't limit me, and that's what the Republican Party's all about. It's about freedom and liberty.
NAYLOR: But the Republican Party has not been about diversity, in recent years. And University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie says that's what makes Shannon's candidacy so vital to the GOP.
KEITH GADDIE: Republican Party is not going to be a viable entity in the United States as a whites-only club. They need African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American votes. There are as many Indian voters as African-American voters in this state. So Shannon is important for that reason, and Indians have voted Republican in the past.
NAYLOR: Before running for office himself, Shannon worked for congressman Tom Cole and former congressman J.C. Watts. Watts served four terms in the House, at the time the only African-American Republican in Congress. Watts, who spoke at the Comanche County barbecue, says the GOP needs to understand how black voters can be reached. He uses the metaphor of a Thanksgiving menu.
J.C. WATTS: Most white people probably eat pumpkin pie for dessert. Most black people probably eat sweet potato pie. Now, that doesn't mean that we can't be together on smaller taxes, smaller government, strong education, strong national defense. But, you know, the party keeps trying to feed me pumpkin pie.
NAYLOR: Shannon is doing well in the polls ahead of the June primary, but he is still trailing Rep. James Lankford. Shannon's swift climb to prominence rubs some of his current constituents the wrong way. Terry Basham, pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Lawton, says he's leaning toward Lankford in part because Shannon is too often missing from local events.
THE REV. TERRY BASHON: He seems to be a national person. He's a local representative, but his focus seems to be national. So we don't see him at the county meetings, but you see him at Fox the next day, New York City the next day. So that's just - that's why.
NAYLOR: But Shannon says if he gives the impression of a young man in a hurry, it's only because the stakes are so high.
SHANNON: When I was elected speaker of the House, I was elected the youngest speaker in state history. And, I think, if elected to the Senate, I would be the youngest member of the United State Senate. And I think that's important because again, people from my generation and below, I think - the ones that I talk to, we recognize we're going to be the ones paying for this, this out-of-control entitlement mentality that we have in our country. We've got to change it.
NAYLOR: That is a future-oriented message that plays well even with older Oklahoma Republicans, and one Shannon hopes can carry him to Washington.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.