Are you experienced?

In past Oklahoma City mayoral elections, incumbents have generally fared well. Current Mayor Mick Cornett has not faced a serious challenge to his seat since he took office in 2004. This time, however, he faces a well-financed, first-term Oklahoma City Council member, Ed Shadid. He also faces two dark horse candidates who could pull votes away from both lead candidates.

Brett Sharp, professor of political science and public administration at the University of Central Oklahoma, said, however, that Cornett will be difficult to defeat because of his track record as mayor and because he has followed in the footsteps of former mayors Kirk Humphreys and Ron Norick, the architects of the first two Metropolitan Area Projects.

“It helps that he has been part of a trilogy of mayors who have ushered in the renaissance of Oklahoma City,” Sharp said. “He has also received national and international attention for his projects here.”

Tyler Johnson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, said Cornett has benefitted because people around the city know his name and already associate him with programs like the MAPS projects and his help in bringing the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team to town.

“Mick has had a decade of people getting to know him and becoming comfortable with him,” Johnson said, “whereas it’s hard for a challenger to point to similar accomplishments.”

Yet Sharp cited the presidential election in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush was a popular incumbent who was defeated by Bill Clinton. He said Shadid could benefit from getting votes from those who are happy with the way things are going but could handle a change.

“It
might be that things are going so well the city population might be
willing to take a risk and go a little different route and give someone
like Shadid a second look,” he said. “If Shadid has any hope, he has to
be betting on that.”

James
Davis, political science professor at Oklahoma State University, said
Shadid has been wise to raise questions about things including the MAPS
convention center project, which was part of Cornett’s MAPS plan. Shadid
was not on the council when any of the MAPS projects passed and can,
therefore, question decisions he had no part in making.

“He is smart to question projects and open public debate,” Davis said. “That’s all very appealing.”

Davis said Shadid, a physician, also can capitalize on his career to build trust among voters.

“Doctors are trusted figures,” he said. “If he can make good sense to the people, he is a much more attractive candidate.”

From the shadows
Then
there is the dark horse factor. The mayoral race has drawn two
additional candidates: Joe “Sarge” Nelson and Phil Hughes. Admittedly,
neither has much hope of winning, but both have issues on their minds
that they are sharing with voters. Sharp said exposure, not victory, is
typically the reason unknown candidates run for office.

“A lot of the reason they run is to bring attention to their pet projects and issues,” he said.

Johnson
said candidates who fall into the dark horse category often don’t have
any hope of victory but want to get a conversation started about a topic
or topics or they simply are unhappy with the way things are.

“They
typically run out of sheer frustration with government, or they run
because they have an issue they care about passionately,” he said.

While
dark horse candidates can be spoilers, Davis said they can serve to
split the vote, perhaps in favor of the challenger, but typically do not
sway the final outcome.

Good for the voters
All
three professors agreed that a challenger, even to a popular incumbent,
benefits the constituents. Sharp said while it is tough to run against
an incumbent, it is an integral part of the political process to keep
elected officials engaged and accountable.

“I
can’t imagine that would be anything other than a positive for
everybody,” he said. “You don’t want to anoint somebody and make them
think they have a right to the office without defending their record.”

Johnson said an elected official’s political skills can atrophy if he or she rarely faces a challenger.

“There’s
something to be said having an incumbent actually face a stiff
challenge every once in a while,” he said. “It forces the incumbent out
into the community.”

But
all the strategy in the world means nothing, Davis said, unless voters
actually turn out on election day. He said while Cornett has a base,
Shadid has the challenge of turning supporters into voters.

“He’s
got to get people registered, then he’s got to get them to vote, then
he’s got to get them to vote right,” he said. “That’s three mountains to
move.”

Gazette Staff

This article was written by the Oklahoma Gazette staff. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story headline in your subject line.

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