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Tomorrow in Oklahoma, Republicans will vote on a nominee to serve the last two years of Sen. Tom Coburn's term. Coburn is retiring at the end of the year. The two front-runners are Congressman James Lankford and former State House Speaker T.W. Shannon. Immigration has surfaced as a big issue in the Oklahoma race, and the winner of this GOP primary will all but certainly become the state's next U.S. Senator. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Oklahoma is among the reddest of red states, as red as the meat served at the Cattlemens' Steakhouse. The place is a fixture in Oklahoma City's old stockyard's district. Legend has it, a previous owner won the restaurant in a dice game. Chatting with some of the lunchtime crowd, it's clear there is little regard for Washington or anyone in it. Lee Brown, a retired oil field worker, says the country is moving backwards and he puts the blame squarely on Pres. Obama.
LEE BROWN: Acts more like he's a czar or a dictator that can do whatever he pleases with a pen and a telephone.
NAYLOR: The latest thing that Brown blames on the Obama administration is the upsurge in children crossing the southern border on their own. Federal officials are housing hundreds of them at Fort Sill in Southwest Oklahoma. Brown believes the administration is encouraging the children to come to the U.S.
BROWN: I think they are or they wouldn't be coming like they are. It's just not normal for kids - teenage young teenage kids to leave their home in the country and come over here.
NAYLOR: The children are also a concern for Apache resident Diane Day who says they be sent back.
DIANE DAY: We live 20 miles from Fort Sill so we're going to get 200 and some children and now 500 and some, that needs to be gotten under control. We can't afford our own people. We can't hardly afford other people.
NAYLOR: In fact, the Army is prepared to house as many as 1,200 children at the base. State Rep. Chairman Dave Weston says it's one of the many national issues that are playing out in the Oklahoma Senate race.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE DAVE WESTON: The fact that we can't even keep 6-year-olds out of our country, that's very concerning, very alarming, not only from a national security view point, but from a health point. What diseases could these children be carry because they don't carry inoculations? What diseases could we be transmitting to them?
NAYLOR: At a debate between the two front-runners last week, both candidates expressed their concern. T.W. Shannon says it's an issue that hits close to home for him.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE T.W. SHANNON: These juveniles are housed right about five miles from where I live every single day. This is a result of failed leadership from Washington D.C. We need to send them back to their homes and we need to make sure we secure our borders and say no to amnesty.
NAYLOR: Congressman Lankford agreed the children should be set back.
REPRESENTATIVE JAMES LANKFORD: It's obvious that we do not have a secure border when 12-year-olds are walking across the borders. So the president can't continue to say our boarders are secure, they're clearly not.
NAYLOR: The similarities between Lankford and Shannon on immigration extend to just about every other issue. Shannon's strategy has been to paint himself as a Washington outsider. He's part African-American and part Chickasaw Indian and has the backing of Tea Party favorites Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruise. An independent group has spent 1.3 million dollars on ads like these on behalf of Shannon.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: T.W. Shannon is the most conservative speaker in Oklahoma history. He cut Oklahoma's debt and our income taxes. James Lankford voted with liberals to raise the debt ceiling twice.
NAYLOR: In his defense, Lankford points out that Oklahoma's two conservative Republican Senators, Coburn and James Inhofe, also voted to increase the debt limit. Coburn has remained neutral in the race, but you wouldn't know that from this Lankford ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dr. Tom Coburn has served Oklahoma with distinction, and when he saw an outside group unfairly attacking James Lankford, he called the ads untruthful. Dr. Coburn praised James Lankford as a man of integrity.
NAYLOR: Lankford's campaign has outspent Shannon's, but outside groups have tilted the spending advantage to Shannon. One thing is clear, whoever wins tomorrow, Oklahoma's red state politics will be little changed. Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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