Election 2010: Making history with Oklahoma’s mosaic
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Published: 01-Nov-2010

Most of Oklahoma’s statewide elective positions are decided in non-presidential years. In 2010, a total of nine non-federal statewide races were up. One, Corporation Commissioner, was decided in the Republican primary when incumbent Dana Murphy was victorious.

The remaining eight non-federal posts are on the Tuesday, November 2 statewide ballot: governor, lieutenant governor, schools superintendent, auditor & inspector, Insurance Commissioner, attorney general, treasurer and labor commissioner. 

Also being decided are U.S. Senator, five congressional districts, and a range of county and judicial jobs.

This review of Tuesday’s elections is broad, lingering over a few races to which CapitolBeatOK has devoted comparatively less attention in recent months, with links to earlier stories on leading candidates and campaigns. 

As is the case in many elections across America, Republicans are leading in most pre-election polls of the statewide offices.

The Statewide Races

In the top state race, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, the Democrat, has a history of exceeding expectations and trumping the polling data. Monday, her advocates told CapitolBeatOK that Askins was closing the gap.

She faces U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, the Republican leading by double digits in the recent public opinion surveys.

The race for lieutenant governor turned into one of the most intense of the secondary races, when state Sen. Ken Corn, the Democrat, sought in television advertising to tar Republican state Sen. Todd Lamb, alleging ties to the scandal centered around state Rep. Randy Terrill’s deal-making on a bill effecting the state medical examiner’s office.

Lamb rebutted those charges in statements and his own wave of advertising, and in so doing was helped by a powerful scolding of Corn by District Attorney David Prater, a Democrat.

In pre-election polls, the second closest statewide race has been the schools superintendent’s contest between Sen. Susan Paddack, the Democrat, and charter school reformer Janet Barresi, the Republican.

Incumbent Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland, a Democrat, was in a close contest with John Doak, a Republican. Their race appeared to be the most competitive statewide race on election eve.

In a third race that could be tight, appointed incumbent Democrat Steve Burrage was engaged in a real battle for Auditor and Inspector with Gary Jones, the Republican who barely lost two prior stabs at the job.

Other statewide races are Attorney General, Treasurer, and Labor Commissioner, with the first contest the most competitive.

In the A.G. race, Republican Scott Pruitt, a former state Senator, is polling well. Democratic nominee Jim Priest, an experienced trial attorney, has run aggressively.

State Rep. Ken Miller of Edmond is the Republican choice for Treasurer, and has the support of the departing incumbent, Scott Meacham. Miller has many advantages over Stephen Covert, the Democratic nominee.

Some details on the Labor Commissioner’s race

In the Labor race, Republican businessman Mark Costello has largely self-financed his race, and is expected to spend several hundred thousand dollars in hopes of unseating incumbent Democrat Lloyd Fields.

One seasoned analyst of Oklahoma politics quipped the other day, “In the labor commissioner's race, incumbent Commissioner Lloyd Fields' campaign finance and activity reports look as if he isn't aware it's campaign time.”

Indeed, Fields has only a few visits here and there and did not appear to be raising any serious money.

That pattern is in sharp contrast to his Republican opponent, Mark Costello, who has loaned himself around a half million dollars.

It appears that Mark Costello's disclosure to a former statewide official early in the race -- "Money is no object" -- is turning out to be true. Costello has had some problems, most notably documentation that he understated to former Commissioner Brenda Reneau – whom he professes to admire -- his ties to a controversial Republican operative. However, there appears to be nothing that has enough traction to impede his ability to steadily build momentum in his drive to unseat Fields. Costello’s humorous advertisements aimed at the incumbent have kept him far ahead.

As for the incumbent, he has alienated organized public employees, a traditional Democratic constituency and is probably best known for taking a guitar from a country music singer before spending a night in the Oklahoma county detox unit.

Fields has had a handful of contributions, but there are no hints he has a hidden stash of cash to finance an upset. In 2006, when he edged Republican Brenda Reneau (in the closest election of a bad year for Republicans running statewide), Fields avoided reporting until long after election day a surge of late money from labor union allies and others. He used that money to finance television advertisements against Reneau, whose reliance on radio and mailers, effective in prior races, was insufficient to gain reelection.

Fifth District Congress

Oklahoma County provides the bulk of the popular vote in the three-county area that makes up the Fifth Congressional District, where what appears to be the state’s most competitive congressional race has unfolded.

With Mary Fallin’s departure to seek the governor’s post, a lively Republican primary season yielded political newcomer James Lankford  as the Grand Old Party’s nominee.

Democrats settled on Billy Coyle as their choice. Lankford has emphasized his conservative views in the context of the strong Republican surge across the U.S. this year, while Coyle has stressed his “Oklahoma Democrat” credentials.

The campaign took on added intensity in these final weeks, as Coyle questioned some disclosures in Lankford’s campaign reports, and claimed Lankford wants to privatize social security.

In the U.S. Senate race, Republican incumbent Tom Coburn has every conceivable advantage over the Democratic nominee, perennial candidate Jim Rogers.

In addition to the candidate races, Oklahomans face 11 statewide propositions. One, State Question 744, came to the ballot as a result of citizen petitioning. The other 10 were put before the electorate as a result of legislative action.

In the state Senate, Republicans have held a 26-22 advantage the past two years. After the July primary, a couple of withdrawals by Democratic hopefuls led to a guarantee that the Grand Old Party will control the upper chamber of the Legislature regardless of Tuesday’s results.

However, that does not leave the Senate elections without some drama. Republicans are dreaming of holding as many as 31 seats when all the results are counted.

In the House, Republicans will remain in control. Still, one race has drawn some attention, if not a lot of expenditures.

Peril for Terrill, or not?

In District 53 (south Oklahoma City) incumbent Randy Terrill remains at the center of a corruption investigation by Okahoma County District Attorney David Prater. Normally the most voluble of legislators, Terrill has been inaccessible to the news media for five months, since news of his role in an alleged scheme to induce a Democratic Senator to retire early in return for a state job. Recently he has answered some questions via email, denying wrongdoing and assailing his critics, including Prater.

Terrill’s maneuvering around governance of the Medical Examiner’s office led to the death of several envisioned reforms of the agency.

Whether criminal or not, the Terrill controversy became the basis for campaign advertisements by state Sen. Ken Corn, Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, which attempted to tie Republican nominee Todd Lamb to Terrill’s scheme. However, D.A. Prater said his investigation had never included Lamb.

Throughout the campaign season, Terrill has shown little campaign finance activity, and some of his reports might more accurately be termed Statements of Inactivity.

A report filed on July 19, for instance, showed only one contribution in the amount of $5,000 from the Oklahoma Public Employee Association and one expense of $1,533 for bottled water.

Terrill’s Democratic opponent, Amy Corley of Newalla, has taken the race seriously, discussing issues of concern to voters while raising a credible sum for an urban House race. However, it is not clear if she can withstand the tide favoring nearly anyone running as a Republican this year, especially in a heavily Republican district.

In a few paragraphs, wrapping it up

For most of Oklahoma’s history, it was a given that to participate in interesting primary elections, a voter needed to be a registered Democrat. Republicans Henry Bellmon and Dewey Bartlett ran successful gubernatorial races that began to fracture the reliably Democratic reputation of the state, before both men went on to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Even as David Boren maintained the state’s niche as a safe haven for moderate-to-conservative Democrats, things shifted in the 1970s and 1980s, and Oklahoma settled in as reliably Republican in national elections.

After winning scattered statewide offices here and there, a surge in 1994 led to the election of a Republican governor, lieutenant governor, labor commissioner and corporation commissioners. That was followed by occasional GOP success in other state offices. At the federal level, for a time in the 1990s the congressional and Senate delegation was 100% Republican, before reaching its present pattern where a Democrat named Boren holds one seat.

In the past decade, Republicans took the state House for the first time since the 1920s, then organized the Senate for the first time ever. However, in 2006, Democrats under the hugely popular Brad Henry reached a modern high-water mark, winning eight of the 11 statewide elective positions.

Early voting began last week, and continued today. By Tuesday evening, the voters of Oklahoma will have spoken.

For good or ill, tomorrow night the Sooner State enters a new era. Oklahoma will have its first woman as governor. Regardless of the outcome in that top race, Republicans will hold a majority of the statewide elective positions, and will control both houses of the Legislature.

Predicting political outcomes is risky business. But here’s a safe prophecy: One hundred and three years after entering the Union as a stronghold for populist Democrats, in 2010 Oklahoma will cement its reputation as a Republican stronghold.

 

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