Tom Coburn leaves brasher peers in wake

When Tom Coburn came to the Senate in 2005, he was the sharpest thorn in the side of his Republican colleagues.

But now that he is leaving the upper chamber at the end of this year, other conservatives — like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah — are stepping up to replace him, and taking Coburn’s confrontational style to an entirely new level. These troublemakers are part of the ‘hell no’ crowd so incensed by Obamacare that they helped tip the government into a shutdown last year that Coburn found unwise.

Indeed, the political ground has shifted so dramatically under Coburn’s feet that the senator — known as “Dr. No” for holding up scores of politically popular bills — even found himself labeled last year by some fellow Republicans as part of the “surrender caucus” and a member of the dreaded party “establishment.”

“Do you think I am part of the establishment?” Coburn asked during a recent interview in his office. “No, I’m not part of the establishment! Ask Mitch McConnell: I drive him friggin’ crazy.”

The tea party vs. establishment narrative exhausts Coburn, whose comments to POLITICO were made in a broader conversation about the recent race to replace him between GOP primary victor Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and T.W. Shannon.

It is a conflict that has only grown since Coburn was first elected to the Senate a decade ago, before the tea party formally existed. At the time, he was the most outspoken conservative in the chamber, delaying bills because of wasteful spending and infuriating colleagues. But he is also known as thoughtful and willing to seek solutions to big problems, and is considered a friend of President Barack Obama from the latter’s days in the Senate.

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