Is it Tea Time in Oklahoma?
After months of noisy rallies and incessant pundit speculation about the breadth of the grass roots rebellion, Tea Partiers and other angry-with-the-government Sooners finally get to register an official protest Tuesday, July 27 in statewide primary elections.
Topping the ballot: Republicans and Democrats will select their nominees to replace term-limited Gov. Brad Henry.
Most of the other statewide constitutional offices -- including lieutenant governor, attorney general and superintendent of public instruction -- also are up for grabs this year, though not all involve primary contests.
On the federal level, three incumbent congressmen -- Tulsa's John Sullivan, Norman's Tom Cole and Muskogee's Dan Boren -- face primary challenges, as does Republican U.S. Senator Tom Coburn.
Most of the attention, though, is focused on the gubernatorial primaries -- for decidedly different reasons.
Democrats are choosing between two of their favorites -- Lt. Gov. Jari Askins and Attorney General Drew Edmondson. The latest polls suggest a possible photo-finish.
There are four Republicans on the ballot, but it's widely viewed as a two-candidate race between U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma City and Owasso state Sen. Randy Brogdon.
Polls show Fallin with a landslide advantage among likely primary voters, but Brogdon casts himself as the champion of the disaffected -- Tea Partiers, States' Righters, Birthers, Tenthers, Birchers, Truthers and others with grievances against the government.
Most political experts regard the loosely-knit coalition as the election year's most dynamic, energized voting bloc. The oft-asked question: Could they make a difference in what historically is a low turnout Republican primary?
Brogdon wants everyone to think so. He trails Fallin in almost every traditional measure of potential electoral success: polls, fundraising and name identification, for example.
The problem is, Fallin also lays claim to the Tea Party mantle. Remember the widely-circulated photos of her, waving the yellow Gadsden "Don't Tread On Me" flag from the Capitol balcony, the weekend of the health care reform vote?
Further, she's been endorsed by arguably the Tea Party's biggest star -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Not all Tea Partiers are convinced Palin is one of them, but name anyone who can whip the politically aggrieved right into a lather faster?
OK, maybe Glenn Beck ...
It's entirely possible, political analysts say, that Tea Party-style voters will have little impact on the GOP primary -- most may not even be registered Republicans, making them ineligible to participate.
"We're not sure who they are," says Dr. Robert Darcy, a longtime Oklahoma State University political science professor. "It's loosely knit and not coherently led.
"In many ways I think it's a label for something that doesn't exist. I don't see it as a party. And I'm not sure I see it as a movement.
There's certainly a lot of noise, and there's certainly people who are using it. Is it anything more than a crowd that shows up to a rightwing rally?"
Fallin, a former three-term lieutenant governor who has represented Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District the past four years, is a rote conservative Republican, the party establishment's clear favorite.
Her toe-the-line voting record made her a recent recipient of the Defender of Economic Freedom award from the deep-pocketed, anti-tax Club for Growth. She also has been endorsed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
But a recent Sooner Poll finds that 43 percent of Oklahomans view the Tea Party favorably. And Fallin's voting record gives Brogdon some room for attack, particularly her vote for the bank bailout known as TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) near the end of George W. Bush's presidency.
Brogdon, a favorite of ultra-conservatives who fashion themselves as "grass roots" Republicans, is perhaps best known for his anti-federal government screeds, especially his legislative attacks on "Obamacare" and what he regards as other federal over-reach.
Indeed, he not only won the endorsement of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, but also was praised recently by Fox News host Glenn Beck as one of the best candidates for governor anywhere in the U.S.
Brogdon also won a late June straw poll of the Republican state committee, besting Fallin 54 percent to 42 percent.
OSU Professor Darcy, himself a registered Republican, likens Fallin to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primaries -- "the centrist, Republican, establishment candidate ... not someone with any attraction whatsoever to the grass roots."
Similarly, he says, Fallin "is someone who doesn't have a personal following ... an interest group following. She is the candidate of the establishment of the Republican organization that wants to win in a safe, calculating way. Brogdon has all the opposite.
"Fallin is going to be carried to Oklahoma City on the shoulders of the (GOP) organization. Brogdon is the guy leading a mob to Oklahoma City. Fallin is a safe choice."
It's an entirely different dynamic on the Democratic side, where many party loyalists are anguished over being forced to choose between two candidates they revere.
The decision is further complicated by a stark political reality: If Democrats, already in the minority in both houses of the Legislature, lose the governor's office, they will have little power to affect public policy in the next two years, if not longer.
Even worse: They would be all but helpless when Republican lawmakers begin redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries, based on this year's Census. Without a Democratic governor threatening a veto, a GOP majority plan is sure to enhance Republican and diminish Democratic electoral prospects.
The early poll numbers in the governor's race are hardly encouraging for Democrats -- the Republican front-runner, Fallin, holds a double-digit leader over both Edmondson and Askins in mythical, head-to-head matchups.
Both Democrats fare much better against Brogdon in the surveys -- raising an interesting question for ultra-conservative, Tea Partying Republicans: Vote for the candidate that polls show has the best chance to win in the November general election? Or vote their conscience?
Democrats face a similar question: Who is better positioned against Fallin in the general election? Recent polls show an Edmondson-Fallin race tighter than Askins-Fallin, but mythical matchups five months out -- a lifetime in politics -- rarely reflect the outcome.
Interestingly, political analysts say, this year's elections may be something of a rarity for Democrats, who are well known for their intra-party feuding.
Both Edmondson, a four-term attorney general, former Muskogee DA and former state House member, and Askins, a former state representative, judge and parole board member, are so well regarded among party loyalists that Democrats may be more united than usual, post-primary.
What's been all-but-overlooked in all the Tea Party talk among Republicans and Democratic hand-wringing over the difficult primary choice is that next Tuesday's primary could ensure that Oklahoma will have its first woman governor.
This much is certain: The primaries are the first step in an election season that will lead to new faces in five statewide offices -- governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer (Democrat Scott Meacham is not seeking re-election) and superintendent of public instruction (Democrat Sandy Garrett is retiring).
Although Oklahoma has trended Republican for nearly a half century, Democrats have fared better than expected in statewide races the past 20 years -- claiming the governorship three of the last five terms and controlling most of the down-ballot statewide offices, even as the state's congressional delegation turned almost exclusively Republican.
Will 2010 complete the Republican takeover? Stay tuned.
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