Coburn Resignation Shakes Up Oklahoma Politics
Governor Mary Fallin set the special election to fill the last two years of Coburn's six-year term to coincide with the regularly scheduled 2014 election dates of June 24 (primary), August 26 (run off primary) and November 4 (general election). Coburn had promised to serve only two terms in the Senate, and his second term would end following the 2016 election. Speculation about who would run in two years now changes to who will run this year.
Since all five members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma had been expected to run for re-election, any of those deciding to run for the open seat, could cause office holders to opt out of their reelection bids and seek an open congressional seat. And, with those positions becoming open, that could result in other openings. The candidate filing period is April 9-11, so potential candidates will need to decide quickly and hit the ground running.
Jumping quickly into the Senate race, and establishing himself as the front-runner is 5th District Congressman James Lankford. Lankford is very popular with social conservatives, with strong stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, but he has rankled more libertarian-oriented conservatives with what they contend is a weak stance in support of civil liberties on issues like NDAA warrantless detention and the NSA spying. Still, Lankford is presenting himself as the logical successor of Senator Coburn, and Coburn is thought to be quietly supporting Lankford, unofficially at this point.
Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt was rumored to be leaning toward a bid in 2016, and his high-profile legal battles against ObamaCare, among other efforts, making him the early front-runner. However, had Pruitt made a bid for the United States Senate in the special election, he would have had to bow out of what was expected to be an easy re-election bid. In the end, Pruitt opted to run for re-election, where he is a heavy favorite.
Another name widely mentioned is that of First District Congressman Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Tulsa who ousted a fellow incumbent Republican, John Sullivan, in the 2012 elections. Bridentstine has quickly established himself as probably the most conservative member of the Oklahoma delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. He would certainly be a formidable candidate, should he opt to run. Like Pruitt, however, Bridenstine would have to forego an expected easy reelection campaign for the House.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon is another strong possibility to make the race for the Senate. A solid conservative, who has publicly opposed the liberal Common Core standards during his tenure, Shannon has developed something of a national following. His status as a conservative African-American candidate could very well draw contributions from across the nation. He is articulate and an accomplished campaigner, and would be a serious candidate, should he make the race.
Veteran Fourth District Congressman Tom Cole bowed out of a Senate race, choosing to remain a powerful member of the House of Representatives, instead, where he is considered a strong ally of Speaker John Boehner. Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony and former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys lost to Coburn when Coburn was first elected to the Senate in 2004, but both decided against a second effort. The race certainly has the potential to draw even more candidates, especially on the Republican side, since 2014 is expected to be a banner year for the G.O.P. in Oklahoma. The fluid situation created by the early Coburn exit has several possible outcomes, and the dominoes will fall in multiple directions.
Since the Democrats have had trouble fielding a candidate for governor and against Senator Jim Inhofe, they would also be expected to have trouble getting a strong candidate to enter this race. President Barack Obama lost Oklahoma by a 33-point margin in 2012. Former Congressman Dan Boren, son of former Senator David Boren, is the last Democrat to serve in Congress from Oklahoma. He has since taken a position working for the Chickasaw Nation. Persistent rumors have it that Dan Boren will re-register Republican before he pursues any more political campaigns in Oklahoma. He has reported decided against making a run for the seat.
As we were going to press, Democrat State Chairman Wallace Collins announced that former Corporation Commissioner Jim Roth and former State Senator Kenneth Corn might very well contend for the nomination of the Democratic Party, either for the Senate or, in the case of Roth, the fifth district congressional race. Senator Al McAffrey, Representative Anastasia Pittman, and 2012 nominee Tom Guild are also strong possibilities to carry the Democrat banner for the 5th district campaign..
Whichever Democrat makes the race for Congress in the 5th district will face an uphill battle against the Republican nominee. Considered a solid Republican seat since the 70s, when Congressman Mickey Edwards first won it for the G.O.P., the Republican contest has attracted Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas of Edmond; former Representative Shane Jett, former State Senator Steve Russell, and State Senator Clark Jolley. Jolley and Douglas would have to fight for the Edmond vote, where a large percentage of the district's Republican vote resides. The entry of Douglas, who was up for re-election this year, creates an open seat for the Corporation Commission which will attract candidates.
At press time, other Republicans, including state Representative Paul Wesselhoft of Moore and former state Representative Kevin Calvey (who lost to Lankford four years ago) are said to be eyeing the race, along with Representative Mike Turner.
Both the U.S. Senate race, the 5th District House race, and, should Congressman Bridenstine run for the Senate, his 1st district congressional seat's race, will all be covered extensively in the next issue.
The sixty-five year old Coburn was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, promising to serve only three terms. Keeping his promise, he left Congress in 2000, and the seat went to a Democrat, Brad Carson. Carson was Coburn's general election opponent in 2004 when Coburn returned to Congress as a United States Senator. When elected to the Senate, Coburn promised to serve only two terms.
Coburn has had several bouts with cancer, and he has had a recent recurrence of prostate cancer. That cancer is not considered life-threatening, however, and Coburn insists that his decision to quit early has more to do with spending more time with his family. In his statement, Coburn said, "Carolyn and I have been touched by the encouragement we've received from people across the state regarding my latest battle against cancer. But this decision isn't about my health, my prognosis or even my hopes and desires."
As a member of Congress, Coburn gained a reputation as a fiscal conservative, battling excessive federal spending. However, he disappointed many conservatives when he supported the big bank bailout in 2008, which cost the taxpayers' billions of dollars. He even received boos at the Republican State Convention in 2009, when he made an effort to explain his unpopular vote, saying the ATM machines would have otherwise quit working.
Fellow Senator Jim Inhofe responded to Coburn's decision that he was "honored to help recruit Tom in 1993 to run for the House of Representatives." Inhofe called Coburn a faithful steward of the taxpayers' money and a dedicated public servant.
In his resignation statement, Coburn said, "As dysfunctional as Washington is these days, change is still possible when "We the People' get engaged, run for office themselves or make their voices heard. After all, how else could a country doctor from Muskogee with no political experience make it to Washington?"
(UPDATE: After we went to press with our print edition, former state Senator Corn announced he would not run for the U.S. Senate seat. On January 29, House Speaker T.W. Shannon announced that he will be running. Also, Congressman Bridenstine decided not to make the race. Former Gov. Frank Keating considered the race and then decided against).