POSTED ON JUNE 23, 2010:
Fear and Loathing In An Election Year
Even dynasties don't guarantee incumbents a road to victory
Go figure: Congress is arguably less popular than at any time in the past century, yet Oklahoma's incumbents on this year's ballot -- four U.S. representatives and one senator -- are favored to win re-election, most without breaking a sweat.
Tea Partiers rallied, chanted and waved anti-federal government placards across the state. And the Legislature spent inordinate time on resolutions aimed at stiff-arming what they regard as unbridled federal overreach.
In fact, ask almost anyone who frequents the neighborhood coffee klatch: As often as not, chit-chat frequently turns to those D.C. no-accounts who -- in Okiespeak -- lack the sense God gave a goose.
So why do Oklahomans almost always re-elect 'em? Is it simply a willingness to believe somebody else's rep -- not ours -- is to blame for the Washington mess?
No, Congressional incumbents are rarely successfully challenged because they have such enormous built-in advantages -- access to special interest money for their campaigns, name identification, the ability to secure federal dollars for local projects -- just to name a few instruments of political gold.
All of which combine to make state Sen. Jim Wilson's challenge of three-term U.S. Rep. Dan Boren in eastern Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District arguably the most intriguing contest in the July 27 Democratic primary.
Wilson, a 63-year-old, balding, bespectacled and blunt-spoken Vietnam vet, is a force at the state Capitol because he's never been afraid to speak truth to power. But he's relatively unknown outside his Tahlequah-area political base, mostly because he's a work-horse, not a show-horse. In other words, he's a serious legislator, not one of those always preening for the TV cameras.
Still, Wilson has decided to challenge Dan Boren. That's B-o-r-e-n, as in the Oklahoma Borens. The closest thing this state has to political royalty in the 21st Century, if not its entire history. Oklahoma's answer to the Kennedy's. Boren's grandfather, Lyle, served Oklahoma in Congress. His father, David, was governor and U.S. senator -- and now is the very popular University of Oklahoma president.
Dan, 36, seeks term four not only with a dynastic name, but also with about $2 million in his campaign fund and a reputation as one of Congress' leading Blue Dogs (the coalition of conservative Democrats who often seem indecipherable from congressional Republicans). He seems almost perfectly positioned in a sprawling 25-county district that once was reliably Democratic but now increasingly casts its votes for Republicans.
So why think Wilson's bid is anything but a fanciful tilting at windmills? After all, he started the campaign late, not announcing until he formally filed his paperwork earlier this month. He's starting the money chase at ground zero, way behind Boren. And he's one of the state Legislature's leading proponents of the federal health care reform act that has so many Oklahomans apoplectic.
Wilson's candidacy cannot be dismissed because, even in Red State Oklahoma, the political landscape is volatile in 2010.
Most of the talk, so far, has been about the Tea Party misfits, angry about all things government, but especially that pinko, socialist -- was he really born in America? -- Democratic president.
What's largely been overlooked by the mainstream political media in Oklahoma is the ferment on the Democratic side, much of it swirling around Blue Dogs like Boren, who often is scorned as a DINO -- Democrat In Name Only.
Some of these die-hard, Yellow Dog Oklahoma Democrats were in the trenches in Arkansas recently when progressives nearly knocked off moderate incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a hotly contested runoff. Others who weren't there in person, were there in spirit -- some even helping Lincoln's challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, financially.
The unrest is illustrated by a recent letter that Tulsa attorney Kalyn Free, founder of INDN's (Indigenous Democratic Network) List to Democratic state senator and lieutenant governor candidate Kenneth Corn, expressing her displeasure with several of his decisions, including votes to override Gov. Brad Henry's vetoes on two abortion bills.
In the letter, which she made public, she wrote that she had planned to donate the maximum contribution allowed by law to Corn's bid for higher office, but "I just can't do that now. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
"Which is why I am going to Arkansas tomorrow to volunteer on the Halter campaign. I firmly believe that until our party stops supporting Democrat sellouts, like Sen. Lincoln, for killing the public (health care) option and not supporting EFCA (the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act), that we are doomed to Republican control. Acting like Republicans, whether it be tax cuts to oil and gas companies or terrorizing women, hasn't worked so well for our party in our state."
As you would expect, Boren publicly expresses optimism that he's well-positioned to win a fourth term. And he seeks to downplay any parallels between his primary challenge and Lincoln's.
No doubt, he would have been much more worried if the progressives had felled Lincoln. But Wilson's candidacy has created a buzz among die-hard Democrats in Oklahoma who share Free's conviction that Republican lite isn't going to cut it anymore.
If this were a general election, Boren wouldn't have much to worry about. Even though he actually votes with the Democratic leadership 89 percent of the time, according to OpenCongress.org, you'd never know it in Oklahoma. He has opposed his party's leadership on high-profile measures such as the health care reform act, creating the impression he's anything but in league with the -- heaven, forbid! -- Nancy Pelosi crowd. Running against Pelosi -- a San Francisco Democrat -- is great politics in Little Dixie ... in November.
It's not so much a sure thing in a lower turnout Democratic primary in the dog days of late July, especially in a year when Oklahoma's liberals -- there are more than you might think -- are every bit as restive as the more highly publicized teabaggers. It doesn't take very many votes in very many key precincts to turn what should be a cakewalk into a nail-biter.
Just ask Blanche Lincoln.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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