Undecided on ’04

Posted March 7, 2003 at 6:19pm

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who remains undecided about seeking a fifth term next year, indicated that the success or failure of his tenure as Budget chairman will play a major role in determining his political future.

“I have fun if we pass budget resolutions and less fun if we don’t,” Nickles said when asked about his plans for 2004.

“I will likely decide a year from this Easter,” added the 54-year-old Nickles. “I have decided not to decide for a while. I am having fun. This stuff is fun.”

Previously, Nickles had said he would announce whether he would run for re-election by the Christmas holidays, citing the example set by former Sen. Henry Bellmon (R), whose seat Nickles won in 1980.

One Republican strategist familiar with the state’s politics believes the more Nickles puts off his decision, the more likely he is to run again.

An April 2004 decision is “getting to where he doesn’t leave the party a lot of time” to pick another candidate said the strategist.

Nickles himself noted, however, that if he decided next Easter it would leave “three or four months” before the filing deadline.

No filing period has been set yet but it is likely to occur in early July. In 2002, candidates had until July 10 to file for federal office.

As Nickles mulls his next step, a number of candidates — Republican and Democrat — are quietly positioning themselves for the potential open seat.

On the Republican side, the obvious potential Nickles successor would be former Rep. J.C. Watts, who retired from the House in 2002 after four terms.

Watts left office as one of the most popular political figures in the state and would be the first choice of the White House and other national Republicans, who make no secret of their desire to field more black candidates for elective office.

Although Watts did not return calls for this story, in an earlier interview with Roll Call he warned against investing too much faith in rumors that he is plotting a return to elective office.

“Until someone hears it from the horse’s mouth they are building a house on sand,” he said.

“The national pressure on him to run would be enormous,” said an Oklahoma Republican observer, who added that Watts “misses” the political scene and “talks about the possibility of returning at some point.”

In a potential signal of his interest in an future run, Watts has chosen to keep his campaign committee open. He ended 2002 with $184,000 remaining in his bank account.

Despite his lingering desire to stay politically involved, Watts left Congress to spend more time with his family and make money, and a two-year respite may not be long enough for him, according to a GOP strategist.

“If he had his preference he would want to run in six years if [Sen. James] Inhofe [R] doesn’t run,” said one GOP strategist.

Watts is currently promoting his book, “What Color is a Conservative?,” delivering paid speeches and getting J.C. Watts Companies — a public affairs and marketing shop based in Virginia — off the ground.

Although Watts is clearly the Republican heavyweight in the race, several other GOPers — led by Rep. Ernest Istook — are laying the groundwork for potential bids.

“He would definitely take a look at [the Senate race],” said Istook spokeswoman Micah Swafford.

Istook has held the central Oklahoma 5th district since 1992; after the 2000 Census the lines were drawn to include Oklahoma City, which had previously been located in Rep. Frank Lucas’ (R) district.

The district Istook held prior to redistricting stretched much farther north and east — reaching into the Tulsa media market.

A source familiar with Istook’s thinking argued that his media presence in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the two population centers of the state, would position him well if he ran statewide.

Istook supporters also point to his perch as an Appropriations Committee cardinal — he has chaired the subcommittee on Transportation since 2001 — as a lucrative fundraising base for a Senate run.

“Fundraising won’t be a problem,” said an Istook source. “He doesn’t want money to be a concern and with the Transportation [post] it doesn’t look like it is going to be.”

Istook has yet to live up to his allegedly powerful fundraising potential.

He showed just $739 on hand at the end of 2002 after raising $656,000 and spending $798,000 in the cycle. Istook won that race with 62 percent.

An Istook source predicted: “The first quarter [fundraising report] won’t be that high, but the second quarter is going to shock some people.”

“Istook is making an effort to improve in the fundraising areas,” acknowledged one Oklahoma Republican not affiliated with his campaign.

Another Republican regularly mentioned for the Senate race is Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys.

Humphreys was first elected in 1998 and won a second term last year with 75 percent of the vote.

Humphreys has publicly said he would be interested in either a Senate or gubernatorial bid.

“He will probably run for the next big job available,” said an Oklahoma Republican.

Former Rep. Tom Coburn, who retired in 2000 as a result of a self-imposed three-term-limit pledge, is also in the mix.

The name most often mentioned on the Democratic side is second-term Rep. Brad Carson.

A spokesman confirmed that if the Senate seat came open, “Congressman Carson would take a very serious look at the seat.”

A source close to Carson was more definitive: “If the race is open, we are in.”

Carson, who won Coburn’s open seat in 2000, has already shown a keen political understanding and an interest for a statewide race.

During the redistricting process, Carson fought hard to extend his district further west so that portions of it reached the Oklahoma City media market, according to sources familiar with the process.

Brad Luna, Carson’s communications director, notes that because his boss is the only Democrat in the federal delegation he is already seen as the “titular head” of the party.

As a result, Carson “has always spoken to groups outside of the district and raised money outside of the district.”

Carson is a strong fundraiser, having brought in more than $1 million in the 2002 cycle alone. In his 2000 general election, he spent more than $1.2 million.

Other Democrats who are expected to take a look at the race are state Attorney General Drew Edmondson and state Insurance Commissioner Robert Butkin.

Edmondson carries a storied Oklahoma political lineage: His father, former Rep. Ed Edmondson (D-Okla), served in the House from 1952 to 1972; his uncle, Howard Edmondson, held an Oklahoma Senate seat.

Edmondson challenged Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) in 1992, pushing him into a runoff before losing 53 percent to 47 percent.

Butkin, who is Jewish, would be able to tap into the considerable national Jewish fundraising network.

Edmondson and Butkin were re-elected to third terms in 2002; they are close friends, however, and it is unlikely both would run in an open-seat scenario, several state sources said.