The only fistfight I ever witnessed in American politics was between two Republican women in a Midland, Texas, hotel ballroom nearly 30 years ago.
Tempers flared over the future of the state GOP chairman. One nasty remark led to another and -- wham! -- one lady felled a second with a haymaker that would have made Muhammad Ali envious.
That was a rare moment for Republicans. They historically do their scrapping -- sans fisticuffs -- behind closed doors, then present a united front in public.
I've never actually seen Democrats come to blows, though I've been present when cooler heads were summoned to avert an almost certain melee.
Nonetheless, it's Democrats who are often viewed as the more raucous of the nation's two major parties, a stereotype no doubt reinforced by Will Rogers' classic line: "I belong to no organized party. I'm a Democrat."
In Oklahoma today, Democrats again are locked in fierce debate, this time over electoral strategy: Specifically, how does a party that dominated state politics for nearly a century regain its groove?
The challenges are significant, the answers anything but easy.
Although there are still more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, no Democratic presidential nominee has carried Oklahoma since 1964. President Obama lost all 77 counties in 2008, his worst showing in the nation. Only one of the state's five U.S. House seats is filled by a Democrat. Both U.S. senators are Republican.
Eight years after taking control of the state House for the first time, Republicans have forged a 62-39 seat advantage. Two years ago, the GOP corralled its first state Senate majority, as well.
And this year, statewide offices held in recent years by Democrats are at risk: Popular Gov. Brad Henry is term-limited after eight years. Neither Lt. Gov. Jari Askins nor longtime Attorney General Drew Edmondson is seeking re-election, opting instead to run for governor. State Superintendent Sandy Garrett is retiring.
In an attempt to reverse the Republican tide, some Democratic insiders are proposing an electoral strategy that has other party loyalists seeing, uh, red.
The plan: Don't challenge every race. Marshal financial resources to protect vulnerable incumbents. Target a handful of legislative races in swing districts where Democrats could pull an upset.
The thinking goes like this: Why mount a quixotic challenge to a popular incumbent -- say, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn -- when it will just encourage him to spend hundreds of thousands, if not more, turning out Republican voters?
The higher the GOP turnout, the more difficult it is for Democrats to hold key statewide offices or pick up legislative seats.
Former state Democratic Chairman Pat Hall, now a political consultant and lobbyist, favors the targeted approach, contending it makes the most sense for a party striving to regain its political sea legs.
He cites two candidacies -- one Republican, the other Democratic -- in which he believes underfunded, little known challengers ended up costing their parties success in other races.
In 1984, Republican Bill Crozier decided to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. David Boren, who ended up carrying all 77 counties and capturing 75% of the vote. "If people don't think that helped Democratic candidates across the state," Hall says, "I'd like to know what they're smoking."
In 2006, Democrat Hal Spake filed against U.S. Rep. Tom Cole in Oklahoma's 4th Congressional District. Cole spent about $400,000 turning out GOP voters, Hall said, most likely costing Democrats three state House seats captured by Republicans T.W. Shannon of Lawton, Dennis Johnson of Duncan and Todd Thomsen of Ada.
Another former state Democratic chairman, Ivan Holmes, recalls that his goal as party leader was to "find somebody to run in every race."
"I've changed my philosophy on it in the last couple of years," he says, coming to believe it is better to target races and resources, rather than take a scattershot approach. "You've only got so much time and energy to do those things."
Other Democrats, though, point to former national party Chairman Howard Dean's successful 50-state strategy as a model, arguing it's just as important to force Republicans to spend time and money to defend their seats rather than allowing them to target specific Democrats for defeat.
There's also a psychological aspect to this debate. It's dispiriting for some party loyalists, and an unacceptable sign of the party's decline, that every seat would not be contested -- especially a high-profile U.S. Senate or congressional seat. Others cannot abide the notion of giving someone like Coburn, with whom they disagree so fervently, a free ride -- even if it could help the overall Democratic ticket.
The debate isn't merely a philosophical one, playing out on Internet message boards. It's playing out in central Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District, where Republican incumbent Mary Fallin has opted not to seek re-election but instead is running for governor.
Until recently, it didn't appear any Democrat would enter the race for a seat that most political experts, both in Oklahoma and nationally, consider "safe Republican." Two current GOP state representatives, Mike Thompson of Oklahoma City and Shane Jett of Tecumseh, and a former, Kevin Calvey of Del City, are campaigning hard. Now, less than four months before the July 27 primary, at least two Democrats say they'll compete: Tom Guild, a local college professor and Oklahoma County party secretary, and lawyer Billy Coyle, the son of a prominent Oklahoma City attorney.
Although Holmes and Hall agree on the targeted strategy, they disagree over whether the 5th District is a seat Democrats should pursue.
Hall notes that no Democrat has held the seat in more than three decades and the district encompasses staunch Republican areas such as Edmond. Poking this GOP hornet's nest with a stick, he believes, won't help the statewide Democratic ticket in November.
But Holmes, who's helping Coyle, disagrees, arguing it may not be as rabidly Republican as some think: Democratic Jim Roth carried the district in his unsuccessful statewide bid in 2008 for Corporation Commission and Democratic state Sen. Andrew Rice ran strong (but did not carry) the district in his failed 2008 bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe.
Will Democrats end up challenging almost every seat? Or will they be more selective? Of course, what the party's powers-that-be want and what they get may be two different things. As Hall put it, "I can't tell anybody what to do." If someone wants to run, they can -- no matter what the party's leaders think.
We won't know which approach prevailed until the candidate filing period ends June 7. And we won't know whether the strategy was successful until Nov. 2.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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