By Mark Lisheron | Watchdog.org
Oklahoma Republicans believe 2012 is the year Little Dixie will fall.
Little Dixie is the rural southeastern corner of the state and the lower half of the 2nd Congressional District, 26 easternmost counties from the border of Texas north to the borders of Kansas and Missouri.
People in the 2nd District are descendants of “Yellow Dog Democrats” and still remember its meaning to Southerners after the Civil War who would have rather voted for a blonde cur dog than a carpetbagging Republican. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans here by more than two to one.
The 2nd District is a holdout, or as Matt Pinnell, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, calls it, “the final frontier.” The district has been represented for the past four congressional terms by Democratic Rep. Dan Boren. Boren is the son of David Boren, the former governor and U.S. senator, and grandson of Lyle Boren, who represented Little Dixie in Congress, both proud Democrats.
Each of the representatives of the other four districts in Oklahoma and both of its senators are Republicans. After John McCain won every county in Oklahoma, including the entire 2nd District, National Public Radio declared Oklahoma the reddest state in the Union.
In the conservative swing of 2010, Boren’s winning margin in his general election dipped to 56 percent. And when he decided not to run for a fifth term, six Republicans joined three Democrats seeking to replace him.
From the unprecedented spending by Republicans to the quiet Democratic campaigns, there is a sense the June 26 primary is bringing change to the 2nd District. State party leaders and the candidates themselves are convinced the general election, one Real Clear Politics says is one of the most compelling in the country, will attract considerable infusions of national party cash.
“I would put the odds at 70-30 that whoever the GOP candidate is will win the general,” said Kenneth Hicks, head of the History and Political Science Department at Rogers State University in Claremore, in the northern part of the district. “That ‘D’ on a ballot is like the mark of Cain with Oklahoma voters these days.”
For an election of this portent, the primaries for both parties have been civil, even a little boring, Daniel Savage, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern State University in nearby Tahlequah, said.
Candidates from both parties have tried to appeal across party lines to what Hicks calls “communitarian” voters, people who are culturally and religiously conservative but older and poorer than the rest of the state.
Pinnell said the 2nd District has fielded the deepest lineup of Republicans ever for its congressional seat. The candidates are:
George Faught, the first Republican to represent his district for the past terms in the state Legislature.
Markwayne Mullin, who is vastly outspending the field with his own money earned by turning a failing family plumbing business into a powerhouse.
Wayne Pettigrew, who left the Oklahoma House in 2004 after 10 years to build a successful insurance business.
Dustin Rowe, an attorney who, at 18, was once the youngest mayor in the country when Tishomingo elected him to the first of two terms.
Dwayne Thompson, a minister from Fort Gibson.
Dakota Wood, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and national security specialist.
Although he has the most current political experience of the group, Faught, 49, is stressing his business experience. “I’m a simple guy,” he said. “I’ve been cleaning carpets for a living. It’s what I’ve done for the last 25 years.”
Voters in the district care about jobs and the federal debt. They want the national health-care law repealed. In Faught, constituents get a legislator with a consistent conservative voting record in the state House, he said.
The anti-Washington sentiment extends to Faught’s promise to serve no more than three two-year terms if elected.
Faught has raised more than $376,000 through the June 6 Federal Election Commission reporting period, in part to combat the more than $780,000 raised by Mullin and to build a grassroots network around 230 precinct captains throughout the district.
“I think voters in this district want a voice, someone who can build broad coalitions across the district,” Faught said. “There are more Democrats in this district, but the message is pretty much the same. Voters in this part of Oklahoma are very conservative.”
Mullin’s interpretation of that conservatism is an appeal to the district’s revulsion with excessive federal authority. Mullin felt it firsthand as he built Mullin Plumbing to include ranching, real estate and service businesses.
Mullin, too, has said he wouldn’t run for a fourth term if elected and re-elected.
“I got fed up,” he said. “Sure, it scares me to death to step away from the family business we built. But either you get involved, or you better keep quiet.”
Mullin, 34, hasn’t been quiet, either in his anti-government message or the way he’s gone about delivering it. Mullin’s near-record spending, poured into radio and television ads, has made the first-time political candidate a name even in households with clear pipes.
Using his trademark bright red company vans as a backdrop for his political ads resulted in as yet unresolved complaints that he was violating the separation of business and politics in advertising. Mullin voluntarily left out the vans in subsequent commercials.
Mullin also has drawn national attention for allegations made by a former employee of Mullin’s, a felon, who was found in possession of a handgun owned by Mullin, although no charges have been filed in connection with the case.
“Our response to it is that there is no response to it,” Mullin said. “At the end of the day, it was one employee. I’ve hired hundreds of employees. This one guy made a mistake, and then he misled a lot of people. That’s all there is to it.”
Pettigrew, 49, said he decided to return to politics after successfully taking his company, first Trinity Financial, public because he believes the district needed to send someone with a deep financial background to Washington.
On the stump, Pettigrew has spoken of a coming cataclysm, a point if nothing is done at which the country will be unable to catch up with its national debt.
“If nothing is done the debt will overcome us all. People get that,” he said. “At that point Main Street in America will dramatically change. This debt is going to really mess us up.”
Pettigrew said if elected he intends to give up the seat when the problems he’s identified are fixed and no more than six terms in all.
The only polling in the primary so far, paid for by Mullin, shows Mullin leading Faught by a wide margin and Faught leading the rest by a similar margin.
Northeastern’s Savage, whose classes have studied and polled for the past three years in the district, said the race will wind up in a runoff, most likely between Mullin and Faught, with Pettigrew having an outside chance. Pinnell and Hicks agree.
A runoff, if needed, is scheduled for Aug. 28. The winners from both major parties will join independent Michael Fulks on the ballot in the general election Nov. 6.
Pinnell said the primary is the best political race this election cycle in Oklahoma with national implications in the general election in November.
“I can assure you there is more enthusiasm for this Republican primary than we’ve ever had,” Pinnell said.
As for the voters deciding from among the candidates, a debate held recently in Okmulgee showed Republicans in lockstep against Washington, D.C., and its profligate ways, Savage said.
“It was almost like watching Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. There wasn’t 10-cents difference between any of them,” Savage said. “It may end up being decided on name recognition or experience.”
The decision by Boren not to run again has left Democrats without experience and name recognition.
Rob Wallace, a former assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, is the only one of the three candidates to have won any election, serving as district attorney for two Oklahoma counties.
Wayne Herriman, is banking on the contacts made over many years as the owner of a successful seed company in the heart of an agricultural district.
Earl Everett, a 78-year-old retired school teacher from Fort Gibson, has raised no money nor does he have a website laying out his background and positions on issues.
Wallace is considered the frontrunner but is expected to get a solid challenge from Herriman, whose roots and business give him considerable recognition in the district, said Wallace Collins, chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.
“I think we’re going to see a spirited race,” Collins said. “Rob is not an old hand at this. I wouldn’t say he’s going to win this in a cakewalk.”
More than at any time the unpopularity of a Democratic president is a drag on the campaign of a candidate for federal office from the conservative 2nd District.
Wallace takes pains to identify with issues important to people in the district who rely on federal programs like Medicare and Social Security rather than party or ideological affiliation.
“I’m fond of saying I’m a prosecutor who thinks in terms or right and wrong rather than right and left,” Wallace said.
Social Security and Medicare are two of those right and wrong issues.
“Voters tell me these are systems they paid into, an agreement we made with them,” he said. “Understanding there is some work to do on Medicare and Social Security, I think those are promises we need to keep.”
Wallace said he wants to focus on policies that help create jobs and produce workers skilled and nimble enough to be of value in the workplace.
Although much of the discussion has been at the local level, Wallace said as congressman he would provide leadership on water rights, a valuable resource in the southern part of the district that political interests in the north have targeted.
“I want to make sure those who own the resource reap the benefits of that resource,” he said.
Herriman, whose campaign did not return e-mails and calls for an interview, stresses on his website that he is a businessman, not a politician.
“I’m going to Congress with one thing on my agenda — to get America back to work,” Herriman says on the site. “We’ve bailed out Wall Street bankers who are taking millions in unearned bonuses ripping off taxpayers, while Main Street struggles. We’re shipping American jobs to China and India, while we suffer 9 (percent) unemployment.”
Through June 6, Wallace had raised more than $403,000, Herriman more than $309,000, according to the FEC.
Savage and Hicks expect Wallace to advance without a runoff. History, however, is running against the Oklahoma voter tradition of voting Republican for president while remaining loyal to Democrats in races closer to the district.
“That era of split-level realignment appears to be fading fast, “ Hicks said, “and it takes candidates with tremendous quality to be able to overcome to stigma of having that ‘D’ by their name on the ballot.”
Collins is fully aware that after Tuesday, the rest of the country will be watching Oklahoma’s 2nd District.
“This race has attracted national attention because it reinforces what we all know here,” Collins said, “that the Republicans would love to say they broke the hold Democrats have always had on Little Dixie. This is going to be a little bit of a test.”
Mark Lisheron is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog.