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Oklahoma Primary Preview

Oklahoma’s primary is tomorrow, with somewhat competitive Democratic and Republican gubernatorial contests, and two competitive Republican congressional primaries. U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin is the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination for governor without a runoff, and Attorney General Drew Edmondson is generally expected to defeat Lt. Gov. Jari Askins on the Democratic side.

There’s a very competitive Republican contest, which will almost definitely go to a runoff, to succeed Fallin in Congress, and a batch of poorly financed Republicans are vying to oppose theoretically vulnerable Democratic congressman Dan Boren.

As is suggested above, Oklahoma’s a state requiring a majority of the vote for party nominations; a runoff will be held on August 24. Unlike most of the southern states with runoff laws, however, Oklahoma’s primaries are closed. At present, 49% of voters are registered as Democrats, and 40% as Republicans, so if Republicans succeed in attracting a higher vote for their marquee match, it will be touted as a sign of superior enthusiasm. Republicans already control both chambers of the state legislature, along with 4 of 5 congressional seats (and both Senate seats), so winning the governorship (currently held by term-limited Democrat Brad Henry) would give the GOP a lock on redistricting. A less likely but not inconceivable win over Boren could produce a sweep of this quite conservative state.

Most of the fireworks in Oklahoma this year have involved the Republican gubernatorial contest. Mary Fallin, a former three-term Lt. Governor (the first Republican elected to that post) and long-time figure in Oklahoma Republican circles, has been the post-to-post front-runner. But state senator Randy Brogdon has played the Tea Party card against her, getting traction mainly from Fallon’s vote for TARP. Fallin has had a large financial advantage (roughly 4-1) and her conservative bona fides has been reinforced by endorsements from such national figures as Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, MN Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and AZ Gov. Jan Brewer. Brogdon has also been perceived as running an excessively negative campaign.

According to polls, Brogdon has not gained much ground down the stretch. A Sooner Poll released yesterday showed Fallin up 56-18 (there are also two minor candidates in the race). Similarly, a Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates poll last week showed Fallin up over Brodgon 50-22, ahead even in Brodgon’s Tulsa base. Very low turnout combined with an exceptional effort by Brodgon’s grassroots network seems to be the only path to victory–(or theoretically, even a runoff)–for the Tea Party favorite.

The Democratic gubernatorial contest has been more civil, and more competitive, though Edmondson, a member of a famous Oklahoma political family, and Attorney General since 1995, has been the front-runner from the beginning. Edmondson and Askins are both moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the mold of Brad Henry; Edmondson was endorsed by the NRA, but also enraged Republicans by refusing to participate in the multi-state suit to challenge federal health reform legislation on constitutional grounds. Askins got a late endorsement from legendary former Oklahoma Sooner football coach Barry Switzer, whose 2002 endorsement of Brad Henry was thought to have helped win that contest. But this year’s vote appears to be breaking primarily on geographical lines, with Edmondson doing especially well in the vote-rich Tulsa area while Askins is strong in southwest Oklahoma. Edmondson has led slightly in fundraising, but a large loan from Askins to her own campaign has brought her into a competitive financial position towards the end of the contest.

The final Sooner Poll had Edmondson up 49-33 over Askins, while Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates showed him up 38-27 with a large undecided vote. The latter poll indicated that Edmondson was doing especially well among strong Obama supporters and union members (along with minority voters), who might be expected to turn out at relatively high rates in what might be a low turnout primary.

Askins has been doing a bit better than Edmondson in general election trial heats, though both trail Fallin by high-single-digit percentages.

The liveliest congressional primary has been among Republicans in Fallin’s 5th district, where three candidates are jockeying for runoff spots. According to a recent Sooner poll, the early front-runner, former state rep. Kevin Calvey, remains in front with 28% of the vote, though self-styled “conservative outsider” James Lankford, an aggressive deployer of social media techniques, has moved up rapidily into second place with 20%, while state rep. Mike Thompson is third at 14%.

In the 2d district, Blue Dog Democratic incumbent Dan Boren, another scion of a well-known political family (his father is former U.S. Senator and current University of Oklahoma president David Boren), has been a strong vote-winner in this relatively conservative district, but attracted a significant primary challenge this year from state senator Jim Wilson, who is attacking the incumbent for voting too much like a Republican. Though Wilson has gotten a lot of national attention from the netroots, his challenge is much like Regina Thomas’ fight against John Barrow in GA-12: badly outgunned financially, and likely to produce a sizable but not threatening protest vote.

Though Boren is on the national GOP’s target list, the Republican challengers in the field are relatively unknown and as underfunded as Wilson, though business owner Howard Houchen has raised the most money. With six candidates running, a runoff is very likely. Most national handicappers give Boren a big edge in November, but anything’s possible this year in a state like Oklahoma.

The polls will close at 7:00 CDT.

UPDATE: A story in the Daily Oklahoman this morning (there hasn’t been a later update) suggested that total turnout would wind up around 25%, about where it was in 2006 (when only one party held a serious gubernatorial primary). The general lack of interest in the election is best illustrated by the web page of the Tulsa World, which as we speak leads with a non-fatal car crash and a city council debate. Oklahomans are not marching to the polls to the blare of bands and the excitement of confetti.