Both parties began their fight Tuesday for a seat being vacated by the only Democrat in Oklahoma’s congressional delegation, and two Republican congressmen easily turned back challenges from the right as voters across the state cast primary ballots.
Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla. announced last year he wouldn’t seek re-election from a district that sprawls across 26 counties in eastern Oklahoma, bordering Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. Six Republicans and three Democrats are seeking the seat, along with an independent who will be on the ballot Nov. 6.
“There’s always that stigma about Democrats playing there (in Oklahoma). But at the same time, it’s Dan Boren’s seat, so it’s definitely something we’re watching and something we’re paying attention to,” said Stephen Carter, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C. “I think the Democrats that are running there fit the district profile.”
Republican Markwayne Mullin looked to high name recognition — he regularly advertises his plumbing company — in his effort for the nomination. The field seeking Boren’s seat also included three-term state Rep. George Faught, former state Rep. Wayne Pettigrew, former Tishomingo Mayor Dustin Rowe, Fort Gibson minister Dwayne Thompson and retired Marine officer Dakota Wood.
Hoping to keep the seat in Democratic hands this fall is former state and federal prosecutor Rob Wallace, retired Fort Gibson school teacher Earl Everett and Muskogee seed company owner Wayne Herriman.
“We need to make people work. That’s one of my big things, even if they’re working at McDonald’s,” said voter Debbie Hendrix, 52, a nurse who cast a ballot for Wood at her Claremore precinct. She was hopeful Congress and whoever is president would work on the economy in 2013.
Democrats have a two-to-one edge in voter registration in eastern Oklahoma, but Republicans have consistently carried the district in presidential elections.
Carol Hutchens, 48, who owns a small trucking company in Muskogee, said she voted for Herriman to replace Boren because the seed company owner would likely back rural issues.
“I liked his business and he’s been here for so long. That pretty much says it. He has horses and cattle, too,” she said.
Brent Townsend, a full-time student in his 40s from Fort Gibson, said he voted for Wallace because he’s known the man for quite a while and can vouch for his integrity.
“We need to send a good man to Washington,” he said.
Democrats had dominated Oklahoma politics since statehood, but Republicans gained a majority in the state House in 2004 and then the state Senate in 2008.
Besides eyeing the possibility of creating an all-Republican delegation, some conservatives were hoping to knock off some GOP office-holders and push those seats further to the right, though they faced financial challenges in doing so.
In the Tulsa area, Rep. John Sullivan faced a challenge from the former head of a Tulsa museum, Steve Bridenstine, as he sought a sixth term. Throughout the race Sullivan criticized Bridenstine’s leadership at the museum and Bridenstine said Sullivan missed too many votes to lead effectively.
“I like the idea of a new face representing the 1st District in D.C.,” said Sarah Hummel, 27, a recent law school graduate who voted for Bridenstine.
But retiree Melvin Johnson, 94, said he voted for Sullivan two years ago and again Tuesday because he has “no complaints with the man.”
Challengers to the GOP incumbents in western, southern and eastern Oklahoma said current officeholders were not conservative enough and looked to tea party-style backing to carry them despite funding disadvantages.
Republican U.S. Reps. Frank Lucas of Cheyenne and Tom Cole of Norman easily defeated primary challenges from fellow Republicans. GOP incumbents in the Legislature also faced some opposition.
“Do I wince a little bit? Sure, but campaigns are about contrast, whether it’s Republican versus Republican or Democrat versus Democrat,” Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Matt Pinnell said. “Certainly we don’t like it to get too heated or too confrontational, but that’s going to happen, especially in this environment.”
The November election was already settled in Oklahoma City’s 5th District because just one person from each party signed up.
The only statewide election on the ballot is a Republican primary for a six-year term on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.