A Look at Oklahoma

Posted September 8, 2003 at 5:50pm

It may be hyperbole to say that one man holds the fate of Oklahoma politics in his hands. But it isn’t too far from the truth.

If Sen. Don Nickles (R) decides to seek a fifth term in 2004, Election Day in the Sooner State should be a fairly ho-hum affair. But if Nickles decides to retire — a dream scenario for Democrats — then an unpredictable Senate race with political implications up and down the ballot is a certainty. [IMGCAP(1)]

“If he doesn’t run, we have plenty of options,” said Jay Parmley, chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

For the Democrats, the list begins with Brad Carson, the ambitious 36-year-old Congressman who fought to change the lines of his House district so it would take in part of the all-important Oklahoma City media market. He is sure to run if Nickles doesn’t.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson (D) and state Treasurer Robert Butkin (D) have also expressed interest in the Senate race, though neither is likely to run if Carson does.

“I just think it’s Drew’s way of saying please circulate my name,” said one Oklahoma statehouse insider.

Republicans, too, have options if Nickles decides to move on. The two leading contenders appear to be Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, who comes from the GOP’s more moderate wing, and Rep. Ernest Istook, a favorite of party conservatives.

Former House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts and third-term Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin are also mentioned as

possible Senate contenders. But Watts has all but said that he’d rather take more time to build his lobbying business before resuming a political career. And Fallin is the early frontrunner for the GOP nomination to take on freshman Gov. Brad Henry (D) in 2006.

Should Istook jump into the Senate race, competitive primaries are likely in both parties for his Oklahoma City-based seat, and the general election could also be close despite the GOP tilt there.

On the Republican side, term-limited state Rep. Bill Graves has said he will run if Istook does not. Graves, 67, has spent 23 of the past 25 years in the state Legislature.

Two of Graves’ younger colleagues could also run: state Rep. Fred Morgan, 49, a former House Minority Leader, and state Rep. Kevin Calvey, 37.

No less than three Democrats have said they will run if Istook’s seat becomes open: former Lt. Gov. Jack Mildren, state Sen. Kelly Haney and 2002 nominee Lou Barlow.

Mildren is a former All-American quarterback at the University of Oklahoma who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994 and came close to trying again in 2002. Haney, a full-blooded Seminole-Creek Indian, finished third in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Barlow, a businessman who spent $232,000 and took 32 percent of the vote against Istook last year, plans to run regardless of what Istook does.

Two other Democrats are also mentioned. Andrew Gin, a physician who is president of the Oklahoma County Medical Society, has spoken to party leaders about running. And Democrats have high hopes for freshman state Rep. Dan Boren — whose father is David Boren, the former Democratic Senator, governor, state attorney general and current president of the University of Oklahoma.

“We are in an incredibly strong position in the 5th district if Ernest leaves,” Parmley said.

If Carson leaves the House to run for the Senate, there is certain to be a competitive Democratic primary for his seat. Former state Senate Majority Leader Billy Mickle will definitely run if Carson doesn’t.

Rob Wallace, the district attorney in Lafleur and Latimer counties, and Kaylan Free, the former DA in Pittsburg County, could also enter the race.

Although Carson is the lone Democrat in the Oklahoma Congressional delegation and his “Little Dixie” district leans Democratic, Gary Jones, the state GOP chairman, believes the right Republican could compete there. Carson’s predecessor, former Rep. Tom Coburn, was a Republican.

There is a slim chance that the Legislature will revisit Congressional redistricting — either in a special session this fall or in the annual session that begins next February. Some Democratic lawmakers have been pushing the new governor to put redistricting on a special session docket in retaliation for Republican strong-arm tactics on redistricting in Texas and Colorado.

“Right now, there are no plans” for a special session, Henry’s spokeswoman, Kym Koch Thompson, said last week.

One thing that’s noteworthy about the Sooner State political climate is that while most of the statewide officeholders are fairly seasoned, the Congressional delegation — on the House side, anyway — is young and new. Two of the state’s five House Members — Reps. Tom Cole (R) and John Sullivan (R) — are serving their first full terms, although Sullivan served for part of the 107th Congress as well. Three are younger than 43.

Sullivan is seen as potentially vulnerable. He took 54 percent of the vote in the January 2002 special election to replace retiring Rep. Steve Largent (R), who was running for governor, and 55 percent last November. But the Democrats do not have a challenger in place yet.

As for the many veteran statewide officeholders, none appears to be in a hurry to move up or out. The only statewide official up for re-election in 2004 is Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode (R), whom Democrats would like to punish for challenging Edmondson in the attorney general race last year. Edmondson won handily, but Democrats are still mad — though they have no candidate lined up yet.

Also worth watching in 2004 is the battle for control of the Legislature. Democrats hold slim 28-20 and 53-48 majorities in the state Senate and House, respectively.

With new term-limit laws due to kick in for the 2004 elections (limiting legislators to a dozen years in office), Republicans think they have an excellent shot at capturing both houses. Seventeen of the 27 House seats that are coming open thanks to term limits are held by Democrats, as are nine of the 14 open Senate seats.

Taking control of the Legislature would be sweet revenge for Republicans, who are still smarting from Henry’s upset victory over Largent (Henry won by just 7,000 votes and may have benefited from the independent candidacy of businessman Gary Richardson, who got 146,000 votes).

“That’s where our focus for 2004 is going to be,” Jones said.

Regardless of how the elections turn out, the Legislature is home to several other political rising stars in Oklahoma.

For Republicans, the list includes House Minority Leader Todd Hiett, a 36-year-old dairyman, and state Sen. Jim Reynolds, a painting contractor who turns 43 next week.

Democrats are high on state Rep. Jari Askins, who is slated to become state House Speaker in 2005 if Democrats keep control of the chamber, and Rep. Joe Dorman, who is already part of the legislative leadership at age 33.