Hot Night In Oklahoma

Today’s primary election is in Oklahoma. Both parties have interesting gubernatorial contests, while Democrats have one congressional primary of national interest and Republicans have two.

Oklahoma is a “runoff state,” where majorities are required for party nominations (runoffs will be held on August 24).  It’s also a closed primary state.  49 percent of Oklahomans are currently registered as Democrats, and 40 percent as Republicans, though Republican turnout could wind up higher thanks to a surplus of competitive races.

The current governor, Democrat Brad Henry, is term-limited, and the two Democratic political heavyweights who are competing to succeed him are generally in the moderate-conservative tradition he exemplifies.  The frontrunner from the beginning has been longtime (1995-present) Attorney General Drew Edmondson, an Okie from Muscogee who is the latest representative of a distinguished political family.  Edmondson raised the hackles of conservatives this year by refusing to join the multi-state Attorney General lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of health reform.  But he also has been endorsed by the NRA.  His opponent, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, has managed to more or less keep up with the well—financed Edmondson on the money front (in part through a large personal loan to her campaign), and sports a slightly better performance in general election trial heats.  One survey suggests that Edmondson is doing a lot better than Askins among strong Obama supporters, union members, and minority voters; in a low-turnout primary that could matter a lot.  But in this unusually civil race, the main divide has been geographical: Edmondson is doing very well in the vote-heavy Tulsa area, while Askins’ base is in the more Republican southwest Oklahoma region.   Askins’ final ace-in-the-hold is a late endorsement by former Oklahoma Sooners’ football coach Barry Switzer, a huge celebrity in the state; a similar Switzer endorsement is thought to have contributed mightily to Brad Henry’s late surge in 2002.

The polling in this race has shown Edmondson with a marginal lead, however, many of the voters are still undecided.  The final Sooner Poll shows Edmondson up 49-33; the final Sooner Survey poll has a much larger undecided vote, with Edmondson leading 38-27.  There is no third candidate, so there will be no runoff.

On the Republican side, the gubernatorial primary initially looked like a classic showdown between an “establishment” (if very conservative) officeholder, Congresswoman Mary Fallin, and Tea Party activist state senator Randy Brogdon.  Fallin, a fixture in Oklahoma politics (she was Lt. Gov. from 1995-2007 before winning election to the House), voted for TARP.  But aside from maintaining a large financial advantage (about 4-1), Fallin worked hard to line up national “validators” of her conservatism, winning endorsements from Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, Tim Pawlenty and the latest conservative celebrity, Jan Brewer.  And it’s thought that Brodgon went a little over the top in accusing Fallin of corruption.

In any event, polls show Fallin poised to win without a runoff.  The final Sooner Poll has her up over Brogdon 56-18; the Sooner Survey puts her lead at 50-22.  With two minor candidates in the field, Brogdon could theoretically force Fallin into a runoff, but it’s unlikely.  His best hope is very low turnout and a good showing in his Tulsa base.

There’s a red-hot Republican primary to succeed Fallin in the House, and a late Sooner Poll shows the long-time front-runner, former state legislator Kevin Calvey running first with 28%, though political newcomer and “conservative outsider” James Lankford is moving up very fast.  A runoff between the two is the most likely outcome.

The other congressional district with a lot of activity today is the 2nd district, where Blue Dog Democrat Dan Boren (son of former U.S. Senator and current University of Oklahoma president David Boren) has attracted both a primary challenge and a large field of Republican opponents.  Boren’s primary opponent, state senator Jim Wilson, has attracted a lot of national netroots support for his criticism of Boren’s conservative voting record, but unfortunately for him, not much money. Boren should win handily. There are six Republicans vying for the nomination in the 2nd, and though this is a nationally targeted race for the GOP, their candidates here are little known and underfunded.  A Republican runoff is very probable, though it’s anybody’s guess who will be in it (businessman Howard Houchen is the best-funded).

Despite the Democratic registration advantage, Republicans control both chambers of the Oklahoma legislature, both Senate seats, and four of five House seats.  If they can win back the governorship after eight years of Democratic control, and somehow knock off Boren, this would solidify their domination of Oklahoma politics.  But Boren’s generally considered a heavy favorite for November, and both Edmondson and Askins are within single digits of Fallin in general election polling.

Looking Forward

Next up on the primary calendar are Kansas, Michigan and Missouri on August 3, and Tennessee on August 5.  It’s been an interesting week in Tennessee’s highly competitive Republican gubernatorial primary.  Congressman Zach Wamp got some unwanted national attention after suggesting that the Volunteer State might have to secede from the Union if health reform is not repealed. He later retracted the threat, but vowed to fight the feds tooth and nail through steps short of armed rebellion. And then another major candidate, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, in response to right-wing angst over the construction of an Islamic community center in Murfreesboro, allowed as how he wasn’t sure the First Amendment applied to Muslims since Islam may not be a religion, but instead a “nationality, way of life or cult.”

Ed Kilgore’s PPI Political Memo runs every Tuesday and Friday.

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