Longtime House Republican faces pricey primary full of fighting words — and football

Rep. Tom Cole is the latest House Republican on defense this year, facing a primary challenger from the right in Oklahoma as GOP incumbents across the country have seen their margins of victory shrink in recent years. 

It’s the most competitive primary Cole has faced since he was first elected in 2002, and it’s been a bitter contest — almost as bitter as the storied rivalry between the University of Oklahoma Sooners and the University of Texas Longhorns, which has become a subplot in the race. 

Cole’s allies have leaned into that sports rivalry to make sure Cole doesn’t fumble ahead of Tuesday’s primary. The congressman’s chief primary opponent, businessman Paul Bondar, has spent more than $5.1 million of his own money on the race. 

But Bondar has faced a potentially damning accusation in Sooner country: that he’s actually a Texan.

“It’s not good to move into a place to run for Congress when you’ve never lived in it, but if you’re coming from Texas into Oklahoma, that probably adds an extra dimension,” Cole, a lifelong Oklahoman and member of the Chickasaw Nation, told NBC News on Thursday.

Americans 4 Security PAC, a super PAC backing Cole, recently launched a TV ad accusing Bondar of being “straight from Dallas trying to buy an Oklahoma congressional seat.”

“Bondar’s full of Texas bull,” a narrator later adds. “Don’t let a Longhorn try to take our Sooner seat.”

Bondar tried to tackle the issue with his own TV ad this week, saying: “I’ve played a lot of football in my life and I love the Sooners. But this election, it’s not about football. We’ve all seen what Tom Cole can do in the last 22 years. Tom Cole wants to cut your Social Security benefits. He wants to increase the retirement age, cut your benefits if you have additional income.”

“I’m not a Longhorns fan,” Bondar said in a phone interview. 

Bondar, who grew up in Wisconsin and later lived in Illinois, said he moved to North Texas in 2021 to escape Illinois’ Covid pandemic restrictions. Bondar voted this year in Texas’ March primary before surrendering his Texas driver’s license for an Oklahoma ID, and he said he can vote in Tuesday’s Oklahoma primary since it is a different election.

A company tied to Bondar purchased property in Oklahoma’s Johnston County in June 2022 as well as a 500-acre property in Atoka County on March 31, 2024, six days after he filed to run for Congress, according to two deeds his campaign shared with NBC News. Bondar’s latest property is not actually in the 4th District, and he dismissed a question about whether he plans to move, noting he does not have to live in the district to run for the seat. 

Bondar, who has worked in insurance, said a client spurred his involvement in GOP politics, and he first got connected to Oklahoma after supporting some candidates there during the 2022 midterms. He said the GOP lawmakers in North Texas “represent their constituency well,” as do the other members of the Oklahoma delegation.

“I wouldn’t run against somebody that’s doing a good job, but I am going to run against somebody who’s not doing the job,” Bondar said.

Bondar suggested Cole has lost touch with the district and spends too much time in the nation’s capital. He also criticized Cole, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, for not reining in government spending and for supporting aid for Ukraine.

“I’ve spent more time in my district in a month than this guy in his lifetime,” Cole countered when asked about those criticisms, describing them as “an effort, I think, to divert from his own lack of familiarity with a district and his own lack of connection with Oklahoma.”

“I think in the end, it’s sort of like a bar fight,” Cole later added. “If you’re in a bar fight, the guy with the most money doesn’t win; the guy with the most friends wins. And I’ve got a lot more friends than my opponent and I think that will show up on Tuesday.”

The pro-Cole super PAC, Americans 4 Security PAC, has also launched ads featuring footage of Bondar driving a car with Texas license plates and stumbling in a local news interview over his exact location, acknowledging he was not in Oklahoma.

Peter Kirkham, a former chief of staff for Cole who is working with the super PAC, said the 60-second ad featuring the local news interview “defined the race for voters.” Kirkham said the football ad was a way to inject some humor and make the case that Bondar is untrustworthy.

“College football is the No. 1 sport in the state and the Oklahoma-Texas game is the No. 1 game. … The rivalry’s real,” Kirkham said. 

Along with some football references, ads from Cole and his allies ads have also all stressed that the longtime congressman has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, which Cole said has been “enormously helpful” in the race.

Trump won the 4th District by 32 percentage points in 2020, according to calculations from Daily Kos Elections.

Trump ally Roger Stone is a consultant for Bondar’s campaign.

Trump’s endorsement can give candidates a major boost in GOP primaries. But Cole is also trying to keep his race from going into overtime. With four other candidates on the ballot, Cole could get forced into an Aug. 27 one-on-one runoff if he does not win more than 50% of the vote against the full field.  

Both candidates are sprinting to the finish, and Cole and Bondar are no strangers to leaving it all on the field. Both played college football, after all.

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