Can Democrats Nab Okla. Senate Seat If Nickles Retires?

Posted June 6, 2003 at 2:06pm

Already the longest-serving Senator in the state’s history, Oklahoma Republican Don Nickles is debating with himself about whether he should seek a fifth term next year. If he doesn’t, Democrats could find themselves with a chance to steal a Senate seat in an increasingly Republican state. [IMGCAP(1)]

At least two potentially formidable Democrats have been eyeing the Senate race, Rep. Brad Carson and state Attorney General Drew Edmondson. Given the state’s Republican bent in federal elections, it’s difficult to believe both men would risk their political futures on an expensive primary.

On the GOP side, however, an open seat could prove irresistible to a hoard of ambitious Republicans who believe that the combination of the state’s recent trends and President Bush at the top of the ticket make the party’s nomination tantamount to victory in the fall.

A number of Republicans are mentioned in connection with an open Senate seat, including former Rep. J.C. Watts, Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys and Rep. Ernest Istook.

GOP overconfidence could lead to a fractured primary and the nomination of a weaker than normal general election candidate. If that happens, the Oklahoma Senate race could be far more interesting than many people now assume.

There is no denying that the state has proved to be increasingly inhospitable to Democrats in federal races. Bush carried the state 60 percent to 38 percent against Al Gore in 2000, and the GOP holds both of the state’s Senate seats and four of its five House districts.

But in state races, the Democrats are still able to show signs of life. Democrat Brad Henry won the governorship last year in a huge upset, and his party holds a slew of state offices: attorney general, auditor, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction and insurance commissioner. Democrats also control both chambers of the Legislature.

Nickles was first elected to the Senate the same year that Ronald Reagan was elected president. Only 54 years old, Nickles chairs the Budget Committee.

But Nickles, who served as his party’s Whip under then-Republican leader Trent Lott (Miss.), was passed over when Lott stepped down from the leadership. And term limits forced Nickles out of his party’s No. 2 job at the end of the previous Congress.

Republican strategists insist that, at the end of the day, Nickles will seek re-election, knowing that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) probably will not run again when his seat is up in 2006, and giving the Oklahoma Senator another shot at party leader.

But that optimism may be more a case of wishful thinking than insider information. Nickles clearly was inclined to retire when this year began, and his decision to delay an announcement apparently reflects real uncertainty about his future.

Nickles is unbeatable if he runs again, but without him Democrats believe they have a chance, even as they acknowledge the state’s partisan bent.

Democrat Edmondson was elected attorney general in 1994, a year when Republicans across the country rode a strong partisan wave. Four years later, he was re-elected without opposition. A proven statewide votegetter, he has a record on crime and consumer protection that might allow him to avoid the liberal label, which is politically fatal in the Sooner State.

But if Edmondson has potential as a Democratic nominee, Carson looks like a blue-chipper.

I initially underestimated Carson three years ago when he was running for the Democratic nomination in an open seat. I figured that longtime state legislator Bill Settle, an ally of organized labor, had the clear advantage in the race for the Democratic nod.

Carson, a Rhodes scholar and a White House fellow who specializes in military issues, struck me as more suited to run in Fairfield County, Conn., or Montgomery County, Pa., than in eastern Oklahoma. The largest cities in Oklahoma’s 2nd district are Muskogee, Claremore and Sapulpa, hardly places where an Arizona-born political neophyte who wears two-tone dress shirts would fit in.

But Carson, who is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and vice chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, not only beat Settle, he clobbered Republican Andy Ewing, a social conservative who had been hand-picked for the nomination by outgoing Republican Tom Coburn.

When I first met him, Carson struck me as a bit overly ambitious (he apparently started dreaming of a political career when he was a child), but that ambition had made him a good politician, and it would make him a strong statewide contender. He is a hard campaigner, and he has positioned himself well as a very moderate Democrat. If any Democrat can win a statewide federal race in Oklahoma, it is Carson.

Naturally, the Oklahoma Senate race will be affected by the economy, Bush’s popularity and the presidential race. If the party of Jefferson and Jackson nominates a Northeast liberal to oppose Bush, Oklahoma Democrats may look for rocks to hide under, not offices to seek.