Wealthy Dark Horse Eyes Sullivan’s Seat

Posted June 27, 2008 at 5:08pm

It’s a good time to be a Democrat.

That might be why so many Democratic House candidates are willing to wager millions of dollars of their own money on winning solid Republican seats against GOP incumbents whose only sin is, well, being a Republican.

The latest wealthy, long-shot Democrat to promise an upset is Tulsa technology company CEO Georgianna Oliver, who is vowing to oust Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) in the overwhelmingly conservative 1st district by perhaps spending in excess of $1 million of her own money.

“All I can tell you is what she told me, and that is that the money will be there. So I believe she has a very strong commitment,” said Don Hoover, Oliver’s media consultant.

Besides Oliver — who faces political activist Mark Manley in the 1st district Democratic primary on July 29 — at least four other Democratic House candidates with deep pockets are running in solid Republican districts that will probably be tough to flip despite what is shaping up to be another banner year for Democratic House and Senate candidates.

Among them are businessman and 1996 Senate candidate Walt Minnick (D), who is challenging Rep. Bill Sali (R) in Idaho’s 1st district, and energy industry executive Michael Skelly (D), who is challenging Rep. John Culberson (R) in Texas’ 7th district.

Also, businessman and former Lea County Commissioner Harry Teague (D) is running for the open New Mexico 2nd district, while supermarket heiress Linda Ketner (D) is taking on Rep. Henry Brown (R) in South Carolina’s 1st district.

It is not a new phenomenon for overly confident, wealthy newcomers to run for Congressional seats. But they have had a decidedly mixed record through the years — especially in districts that naturally favor the incumbent party.

There are few overt political indicators to suggest that Republican domination in Oklahoma’s 1st district — or other solid GOP seats where wealthy Democrats are running — is in jeopardy, save for possibly New Mexico’s 2nd district.

In Oklahoma, voters have been open to electing conservative Democrats to state office for several years while simultaneously sending Republicans to Washington, D.C., to serve in the House and Senate. In 2006, which turned out to be the best election for Congressional Democrats in a generation, now-Rep. Mary Fallin (R) easily won the open 5th district seat.

Sullivan won the 1st district with 64 percent of the vote in 2006, 60 percent in 2004 and 56 percent in 2002. President Bush won the district in 2000 and 2004 with 62 percent and 65 percent of the vote, respectively.

Republicans say they don’t expect anything to change this year in the 1st district, no matter how much Oliver spends.

In particular, GOP operatives familiar with this district point to a strong Republican advantage among enrolled voters, and they note that the presidential election is likely to boost downballot GOP performance.

According to voter registration statistics from January that include enrollment figures from the three counties that make up nearly the entire 1st district, the GOP leads the Democrats by 42,585 voters.

Those three counties are Tulsa County, by far the most populous county in the district and where the Republicans’ lead among enrolled voters is the largest, as well as Wagoner and Washington counties.

Although the National Republican Congressional Committee has plenty to worry about this cycle in usually safe seats, Oklahoma’s 1st is not one of the districts that NRCC officials are concerned about. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also has yet to add this seat to its watch list, even as it continues to expand the number of historically strong Republican seats it is targeting.

“Even without the fact that this is a presidential election year, when Oklahoma voters will be turning out for [Arizona Republican Sen.] John McCain, this seat is still not in play for the Democrats,” NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley said. “John Sullivan is someone that the 1st district can rely on to make sure their needs are taken care of in Washington.”

Sullivan reported $412,000 on hand as of April 30.

Oliver’s plan, according to a memo her campaign prepared to explain how she can beat Sullivan, is to run as a “conservative” Democrat. She was a House aide for then-Rep. Bill Brewster (D-Okla.) and has been active with the Tulsa League of Women Voters, although this is her first run for political office.

Oliver bases her viability largely on the fact that Sullivan has had minimal competition since winning the 1st district in a 2002 special election, and on the strong performance of Democrats who have won the seat in their bids for state office. In 2006, Gov. Brad Henry (D) won the district with 61 percent of the vote.

Democratic candidates for state attorney general, state treasurer and state school superintendent also won the district that year.

“The strategy is to acquaint [Sullivan’s] constituents with his record and demonstrate it is not in their interest — and that she offers a reasonable alternative,” Hoover said, although when asked he was unable to immediately point to anything that voters might find objectionable in Sullivan’s House voting record.