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Tom Cole, House GOP Spending Chief, Defeats Challenger in Oklahoma Primary

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Representative Tom Cole, the veteran Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, fended off a primary challenge on Tuesday from a well-funded right-wing businessman, putting him on track to win a 12th term.

Mr. Cole, who was first elected to Congress in 2002, has long been a fixture of Oklahoma politics and an influential legislative voice behind the scenes in Congress. The Associated Press called the race less than an hour after polls closed as Mr. Cole led by an overwhelming margin.

Mr. Cole ascended to the helm of the influential Appropriations panel in April, assuming a coveted position on Capitol Hill that put him in charge of the allocation of federal spending. Top members of the committee can steer federal dollars not just across the government, but also to their own districts.

But as the G.O.P. has veered to the right in recent years and become increasingly doctrinaire about slashing federal spending, the Appropriations gavel has morphed into a political liability for Republicans. Mr. Cole’s opponent, Paul Bondar, an anti-spending conservative businessman, tried to weaponize the congressman’s 15-year tenure on the committee against him. Mr. Bondar argued that Mr. Cole’s time on Capitol Hill had left him out of touch with his district, and attacked his voting record as insufficiently conservative.

“Tom Cole voted with Democrats for billions in new deficit spending,” a narrator on a television advertisement said. “Paul Bondar opposes new federal spending.”

Early on, Mr. Bondar committed to pouring large amounts of his personal wealth into the race. With more than $8 million spent as of late last week, it became one of the most expensive House primaries this year — and the most competitive primary challenge Mr. Cole had faced in years.

“It’s like an old-fashioned bar fight,” Mr. Cole told Roll Call. “The guy who wins a bar fight isn’t the guy with the most money; it’s the guy with the most friends. And I have a lot of friends in that district.”

Mr. Cole’s predecessor on the committee, Representative Kay Granger of Texas, also faced a well-funded primary challenge when she led the panel, and also was able to use her stature in the district to defeat it easily.

In the end, Mr. Cole’s status as a political veteran in the district, as well as Mr. Bondar’s own political foibles — chief among them his recent move into the state from Texas — allowed him to prevail. A halting interview Mr. Bondar gave to a local television reporter in which he confessed to dialing in to the call from Texas was widely circulated in the district.

“Can’t find his way around the district without a map,” Mr. Cole said of his opponent in an interview earlier this month. “It’s not like I’m an unknown quantity. My family’s lived in this district 175 years on my mom’s side and 140 on my father’s side.”


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