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James Lankford wins GOP nomination for Senate in Oklahoma

U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, is pictured during a Republican candidate forum for the open U.S. Senate seat in Lawton, Okla., Friday, June 6, 2014.

Sue Ogrocki, AP

Last Updated Jun 25, 2014 1:15 AM EDT

OKLAHOMA CITY - U.S. Rep. James Lankford brushed off a tea party challenge and captured the Republican nomination outright in the race for Oklahoma's open U.S. Senate seat, a victory that highlights a stunning rise to power for a 46-year-old who was a church camp director and political unknown just four years ago.

In a solidly Republican state, Lankford's victory Tuesday over former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon and five other GOP challengers all but assures he will become Oklahoma's next U.S. senator. He will face an independent and the winner of a Democratic primary runoff in the general election, but the state hasn't elected a Democrat to an open U.S. Senate seat since 1978.

In the race for Oklahoma's other U.S. Senate seat, incumbent Republican Jim Inhofe easily dispatched four lesser-known GOP challengers to win the nomination. He will face Democrat Matt Silverstein of Bixby and three independents in November as he seeks a fourth term in office.

Shannon, a member of the powerful Chickasaw Nation and the state's first black House speaker, enjoyed high-profile endorsements from conservative groups in Washington and tea party favorites, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

But Shannon's attempts to paint Lankford as a Washington insider and criticize him for votes to increase the nation's debt ceiling as part of a broad budget agreement didn't gain much traction with the Oklahoma electorate.

"I've been in Congress a whopping three years," Lankford told The Associated Press in a telephone interview shortly after his victory Tuesday night. "So this idea that I'm a Washington insider just didn't sell."

Many voters in Tuesday's election cited the negative ads against Lankford as just another reason they supported him.

"I was totally blown away by what they were saying, because I know it wasn't true," said 63-year-old Wayne Hanner, a retired school teacher from Shawnee who voted for Lankford.

A longtime Baptist preacher from Edmond with bright red hair and a booming voice, Lankford built a reputation as a studious workhorse in Congress, where he quickly climbed the leadership ranks and earned a leadership position after his first term in office.

Lankford was a political novice in 2010 when he emerged from a crowded Republican field and won the open U.S. House seat in the state's Republican-leaning capital city. At the time, his campaign embraced emerging social media and leveraged an army of young evangelicals who knew Lankford from his 13 years as director of Falls Creek, one of the largest Christian youth camps in the country with more than 50,000 attendees annually.

While many of those campers couldn't vote in Lankford's U.S. House district, they were able to support him in his U.S. Senate bid.

Haley Michael, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who cast a Republican ballot for Lankford, said she still remembers her meeting with Lankford when he was camp director.

"He seems very wise," Michael said. "I like that kind of leadership."

Lankford's conservative credentials also resonated with older evangelicals, a powerful voting bloc in a state where the number of registered Republicans is nearly equal to Democrats, who controlled the state for nearly a century. Of the nearly 2 million registered voters in Oklahoma, 44.3 percent are Democrats, 43.4 percent are Republicans, and 12.3 are independents.

James Reynolds, a 76-year-old retired Baptist preacher from Shawnee, said Lankford's experience both as director at Falls Creek and during his time in Congress impressed him.

"I know that he was in charge of Falls Creek, and I know what kind of operation they run," Reynolds said after casting his ballot Tuesday at the Northridge Church of Christ in Shawnee. "The three years he spent as a representative, I like the way he's handled himself."

In other primary races on Tuesday, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin easily won the GOP nomination in her bid for a second term in office, while GOP State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi was soundly defeated by Joy Hofmeister, a Fallin appointee to the board of education who stepped down to run against Barresi.

In Colorado, former Rep. Bob Beauprez won a crowded gubernatorial primary that included 2008 presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, an immigration opponent. That was welcome news to national Republicans who feared that Tancredo could be a drag on the GOP ticket in November. Beauprez will face Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown won the Democratic primary for governor as the state chose a successor to outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is considering a 2016 presidential bid. If elected in the Democratic-leaning state, Brown would make history as one of the few African-American governors; Massachusetts' Deval Patrick is retiring.