Republicans knew this day would come. Mary Fallin, the sweetheart of the Oklahoma GOP, is finally making a run at governor. Her name was synonymous with the lieutenant governor’s office, a position she held for 12 years. Fallin bypassed a race for governor in 2002 and the U.S. Senate in 2004 when she could have been a leading contender for both seats. But in 2006, Fallin braved off tough competition to represent the state’s 5th Congressional District.
Now that Fallin is in the race for the state government’s top job, her departure from Congress has caused a stable of politicians and unknowns to try and take the empty chair. No less than 11 candidates filed for the open seat, seven just in Fallin’s Republican Party alone. The GOPers in the field are raging a fierce battle over money, conservatism and Tea Party support, with a pair of Democrats slugging it out to be their party’s champion.
And lurking in the field are two independent candidates watching the wars from the sidelines and waiting for the approaching fall election.
Flanking the right
What must a Republican do to be the most conservative candidate when six other fellow partiers are trying to outflank you? That is the question each of the seven GOPers is trying answer. The one who finds the right formula gets the separation.
Political analyst Scott Mitchell said the solution is very simple: spend money.
“I don’t know how you can grassroots your way through that many people,” Mitchell said. “Our voter base in Oklahoma is as apathetic as it can be, so it’s not like we’ve got burning desire to change things.”
When asked how to break out from the crowd and win the nomination, most of the seven Republican candidates talked about themselves rather than a particular strategy.
Former state House member Kevin Calvey, who ran for this seat in 2006, takes a warrior approach.
“I have fought for our country in Iraq,” Calvey told Oklahoma Gazette. “Before that, I fought in the Legislature for the conservative principles which make our country great.”
He also touts his recent lawsuit against the federal government over the new health care law. “I have led in the fight for freedom.”
Like Calvey, physician Johnny B. Roy is making his second run at the congressional seat. The doctor doesn’t have much regard for current and past lawmakers in the race.
“Candidates will all talk about their legislative career, and how they worked in the private sector,” Roy said. “This is all nonsense. Voters don’t care about a politician telling them how they are going to be a better politician.”
Rick Flanigan, another contender, owns a battery shop and thinks the race is full of conservative poseurs.
“I have watched over the last year as some of the candidates in this race talk about being in favor of smaller government, yet while in the Legislature they worked to pass bills to create new government programs and new entitlement programs.”
For candidate Shane Jett, currently serving in the state House, issues aren’t everything. It’s also about personality.
“My life experience is what really seems to attract people,” said Jett, who has lived overseas working for Oklahoma companies. “Every one of us is conservative. Every one of us is pro-life. All the litmus tests we check. The personal issues are what people are attracted to.”
James Lankford, former director of the Falls Creek summer camp, a Christian camp for kids and teenagers, believes he will connect with voters who want an outsider running for office.
“Some people have a preference for career politicians when they vote, and some have a preference for reform-minded new voices,” Lankford said. “I connect best with people who are frustrated with the gridlock and ethical compromise that has characterized many in our national leadership for over a decade. I am not a career politician.”
Retired oilman Harry Johnson, the oldest candidate in the race at 77, said it comes down to one word: experience. Johnson believes his experience in dealing with government as a businessman gives him keen insight as to what it takes to get the job done.
“We don’t have time to send a young person up there to learn the system,” Johnson said.
State Rep. Mike Thompson, the seventh candidate in the race, did not respond to Gazette inquires.
While Jett believes personality will draw voters’ attention, most of the candidates want the attention of one group: the Tea Party.
Barnstorming the nation for more than a year on the platform of “taking back the country,” this new movement of American politics is flexing its muscle. It started with the huge upset election of Scott Brown for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in January. Since then, several incumbent Republicans not considered worthy of their tastes have failed at re-election bids.
Many of the 5th District candidates are ready to join the bandwagon.
“I was a Tea Party-style activist even before the recent Tea Party movement started,” Calvey said. “I have attended every Tea Party event held in Oklahoma City. The Tea Party movement is very much a force to be reckoned with, and it will likely make the difference in some elections.”
Flanigan also believes being with the Tea Party gives a candidate an edge.
“I think that if a candidate can consolidate support from the multitude of Tea Party organizations, then he will have a better shot of receiving the Republican nomination,” he said.
But not everyone is convinced having Tea Party support is the only path to victory.
“The Tea Party is very relevant, but they are just as diverse,” Jett said. “It’s not a litmus test to be a Tea Party member. The Tea Party is made up of people who are fed up with the encroaching federal government. That’s the bulk of Oklahomans who feel that way.”
Jett sees the race taking a different shape this time. The district is comprised of three counties: Oklahoma, Seminole and Pottawatomie. Oklahoma County is by far the more populated and where most of the representatives of the district have hailed from. Fallin grew up in Tecumseh in Pottawatomie County.
“Pottawatomie County and Seminole County feel like they are the tail end of the dog, and the big metropolitan area is going to dominate,” said Jett, who went on to say that Republicans in the district are upset at the Oklahoma Republican Party for “strong-arming Mary Fallin” out of the 2002 governor’s race.
“They have been waiting to vote for Mary Fallin for governor for eight years. She is going to skew voter turnout in that area,” he said. “The same people who show up and vote for Mary Fallin for the most part are going to show up and vote for Shane Jett.”
Although Oklahoma County voters outnumber the other two counties seven to one, Jett still believes the odds are on his side.
“We have about 10 percent of the vote down there. In a two-man or even three-man vote, 10 percent is woefully inadequate. But in a seven-way race, 10 percent puts you right behind the front-runner.”
As for a Tea Party endorsement, the head of the Sooner Tea Party said members have their sights settled elsewhere.
“(The organization) will concentrate on state issues, believing that once we clean up our own house, the country will follow,” said Al Gerhart, co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party. “We are forming a Tea Party (political action committee), but it will be for opposing candidates, not supporting.”
An Oklahoma Democrat
The last time a Democrat held the 5th District office, he became a Republican. John Jarman was first elected to the Central Oklahoma district in 1950 and served as a proud Democrat until 1975. But after barely escaping with victory in the 1974 elections, Jarman decided his party was swimming with liberals and opted out.
So how does a Democrat end a nearly 35-year drought?
Candidate Tom Guild thinks he has the answer.
“I must effectively communicate to voters that I will do everything possible to make sure that government works for them,” Guild said. “Oklahomans need to feel comfortable that I will work hard and do everything possible to protect and preserve Social Security and Medicare, to help create good paying jobs partly by removing unnecessary regulations from small businesses, and to remove any remaining legal barriers so that all Americans have a fair opportunity to achieve the American dream.”
That type of verbose language could come from any number of candidates running for various offices. The question for the Democratic Party is, do the numbers favor them in any way? Past history would say no, but recent history is a little more favorable.
Looking at the numbers, Democrats outnumber Republicans throughout the district, with the exception of Oklahoma County. But even there, the GOP margin is less than 2,000 voters. This is no surprise to anyone familiar with Oklahoma politics, as Republicans have easily won elections in Democrat majority areas for years.
Republican John McCain way outdistanced Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. But another election on the same day is where Democrats should pay attention. In the statewide race for corporation commission, Republican challenger Dana Murphy edged out Democrat Jim Roth for the seat, but not in the 5th District. There, Roth won the lion’s share of votes, taking two of the three counties, Oklahoma and Seminole.
Does that formula exist this year, given the GOP domination? Guild thinks so.
“Voters in Massachusetts elected a Republican to replace Sen. (Ted) Kennedy, and voters in New York elected a Democrat to a congressional seat that had been held by the Republicans since right after the Civil War,” he said. “If voters show that level of discernment in other states, there is no reason that I cannot be elected this year as a Democrat in the 5th District of Oklahoma.”
Guild’s Democrat challenger, Billy Coyle, did not respond to Gazette inquires for the story.
But being an Oklahoma Democrat traditionally was different from the national Democratic Party. Many Oklahoma Democrats love guns, support the death penalty, oppose gay marriage and welcome prayer in school. An Oklahoma Democrat aligned with the national party usually ends up looking for other work after elections.
Guild believes it’s just a matter of making the voters’ priorities the same as his.
“I think Oklahomans are pragmatic, and they want Congress to pursue policies that work for our people and that give everyone a fair opportunity to succeed and to have access to good and affordable health care and to live well and to educate and support their families,” he said.
The two independent candidates, Clark Duffe and Dave White, get to sit out the primary and wait for the Republican and Democrat champions to emerge for a fall battle.
Mitchell believes just because the GOP has dominated this district for so long doesn’t mean this time will end up the same.
“Look at the havoc the independents are going to cause in CD5,” Mitchell said. “There are a lot of mines out there that the Republican nominee (will have) their hands full.
“It’s the best race. It will be better than the gubernatorial stuff. It will be more entertaining. Everybody thinks it’s a Republican seat, but I’m not sure you can mail that one in.”
The primary is July 27. Should a candidate fail to get more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held in August between the top two finishers.
Photos from top:
Johnny B. Roy