A House GOP Power Broker Faces A Surprise Challenger With Ties To Roger Stone


The life of a House Appropriations Committee chair is supposed to be easy. Leading the panel that helps decide which government agencies and programs get how much money each year is traditionally among the most powerful perches in Washington.

But for Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who took over the committee in April, that deference hasn’t extended back home, where he is facing an unexpectedly strong primary challenge from a political unknown who moved across the Red River from Texas to run.

“It’s totally bizarre,” Cole, one of the longest-serving House Republicans and a link between the pre- and post-Donald Trump GOPs, told HuffPost. “We know he did multiple surveys in a variety of districts. So he was clearly district-shopping. And for whatever reason, he thought I was the easiest target.”

In the current antiestablishment environment, and in an election that will test who can appeal most to the pro-Trump, anti-Ukraine base of today’s Republican Party, Cole’s strengths in Washington could be liabilities back home.

His seniority in Congress allowed him to become chair of the Appropriations Committee, and the respect he has from members of his own party, as well as many Democrats, can now be portrayed as evidence that he’s part of the Washington “swamp.”

Paul Bondar, a former trucking insurance executive, is reportedly willing to spend up to $7 million on the race, a fortune in the dirt-cheap ad markets in southwestern Oklahoma making up Cole’s district. Bondar says the 11-term Cole has lost touch with the district, citing his votes in favor of a controversial spying law and aid for war-torn Ukraine.

Adding to the mystery of Bondar are his links to George Santos, the expelled former representative from New York, and Roger Stone, the Trump associate who was convicted of obstruction, witness tampering and lying to Congress. Stone was pardoned by Trump before he could start serving a 40-month prison sentence.

Ordinarily, the head of the Appropriations Committee is a long-serving House member of such political standing that they have few or no party challengers. In Cole’s case, his ascension makes him maybe the most powerful Okie in the chamber since Rep. Carl Albert, known as the Little Giant, was speaker in the 1970s.

In addition to being in a prime spot to ensure his state gets its share of federal funds, Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, has the distinction of being the first Native American to head the Appropriations Committee.

For Bondar, all of that is just part of the challenge.

“I’m going after the queen bee in the hornet’s nest,” he told HuffPost in a phone interview Friday. “And when I’m done with this, Oklahoma is going to be liberated from 22 years of neglect and indifference.”

“My state now is Oklahoma, and I’m not going to continue to tolerate this type of representation,” he said. “That’s why I’m here: to clean up this state.”

Bondar acknowledged, though, that he had commissioned polls in two districts prior to running, both in Oklahoma.

He said he did the polling to determine “which [lawmaker] had abandoned the American people and the citizens the worst, and I wanted to understand where I was needed most.”

Bondar’s newness to the political scene played a role in his ties to both Santos and Stone.

When he initially filed for office, Bondar listed Thomas Datwyler as his campaign treasurer. Datwyler was also once listed as a treasurer for Santos — who was elected to Congress in 2022, admitted a string of fabrications about his background, and ultimately was expelled by his fellow lawmakers after federal fraud charges were filed against him.

Bondar said he hired Datwyler after seeing that he had been used by a current Oklahoma representative, and believed that he had a solid professional reputation.

“Once we found out that Datwyler had some issues going on with his particular situations, we immediately terminated him and we moved to a different treasurer,” Bondar said.

As for Stone, Bondar said he uses him as a consultant because he’s good.

“He represents President Trump, and he also represented three other presidents and got them in office,” Bondar said. “And I do things first-class, so I used him.”

Ironically, Trump has endorsed Cole.

The former president, in a post on his social media site, called Cole “fantastic” and noted that he headed the “POWERFUL” Appropriations Committee.

“He has almost always voted with me, including on both Impeachment Hoaxes,” Trump wrote. “Tom Cole has my Complete and Total Endorsement – He will not let you down!”

Cole’s campaign hopes that endorsement will be enough to blunt Bondar’s appeal to the “Make America Great Again” crowd. But Cole, a former political consultant before being elected to Congress, is taking the threat seriously, releasing political ads to counter Bondar’s.

According to a television ad tracking service, Cole and two organizations supporting him were already set to spend almost $4 million, while Bondar was projected to spend about $2.7 million ahead of the June 18 primary.

Cole laughed off one of Bondar’s major pieces of evidence that he has become estranged from his district: that Cole has not voted in person there since 2004.

“I always voted absentee,” Cole said, adding that he is usually “there campaigning on Election Day” and unable to vote in person.

“That’s just ridiculous. He’s never voted there at all,” Cole added, referring to his opponent.

Cole has portrayed Bondar as a carpetbagger with few ties to Oklahoma. One ad shows an edited image of Bondar crossing over the Red River and notes that he recently voted in Texas.

Bondar, who listed a Norman, Oklahoma, address on his filing paperwork and said he bought a few hundred acres on the north side of the Red River to build a new house, didn’t deny his Texas past. But he also said his moving shows that he’s devoted to the Sooner State.

The issue surfaced in an awkward interview with an Oklahoma City television station. Asked where he was currently located during the Zoom interview, Bondar at first said only that he was in an office.

“Is that office in Texas?” the reporter asked.

After a pause, Bondar replied: “I was at the town of Duncan last night. And right now, I am at an office.”

“Is that office in Oklahoma?” the reporter pressed.

“No, I’m not in Oklahoma right now,” Bondar said.

Bondar told HuffPost that he didn’t want to disclose his location in part because of fear for his family.

“I was hesitant to disclose my whereabouts because I have had people try to intimidate and make threats against me and my family,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a positive thing for people to necessarily always know where I am and where my family is at all times.”

Cole said he’s not being taken by surprise, but he also said he did not understand exactly why Bondar was spending so much to run against him.

“To me, you ought to run where you were born, in Wisconsin, or where your business was at, in Illinois, or where you were living, in Texas. Why would you come across the border?” Cole asked.

“Evidently he wants to be in Congress for some reason.”

While Cole is stuck representing the party establishment in an antiestablishment climate, Bondar may have a very tough time shaking the carpetbagger label that Cole is trying to pin on him.

Asked whether he will root for the University of Oklahoma Sooners or the Oklahoma State Cowboys — a version of the Wawa-versus-Sheetz debate, but for Oklahoma’s beloved college football instead of Pennsylvania’s convenience stores — Bondar hedged.

“They’re both fine programs,” he said, though he noted that his football-playing son wants to go to OU.

“That might be a good quality of me coming as a newcomer, because I do not want to be a divider. I want every Oklahoma school to kick butt on anybody that’s not an Oklahoma school. That’s where I’m at, OK?”

Cole roots for OU, his campaign said.