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Primary Preview: Four Oklahoma Races To Watch Tuesday

Jun 23, 2014

The retirement of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has had a ripple effect in Sooner State politics, reaching into the Fifth Congressional District, and all the way into the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and state legislative seats.

KGOU gathered eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley, Watchdog.org Oklahoma bureau chief and CapitolBeakOK writer Patrick McGuigan, and SoonerPoll and Shapard Research President and CEO Bill Shapard to make sense of the several hotly contested races in both the GOP and Democratic primaries.

Oklahoma’s Open Senate Seat

Two-term U.S. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla. 5) rode a Tea Party wave into the House in 2010 when Mary Fallin vacated her Fifth District seat to run for, and win, the Oklahoma governor’s office. Lankford is challenged by former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon (R-Lawton), and Shapard says both strongly tout their GOP credentials in one of the reddest states in the nation.

“I think it's Lankford who has a record that is not as conservative as I think even Tom Coburn is,” Shapard says.

Shannon’s ethnicity is drawing further attention in the race. He’s both African-American and Native American, and has the financial backing of several of Oklahoma’s major tribes. They’re being challenged by a former state Senator from Owasso.

“I think what's been surprising has been that Randy Brogdon has not pulled the kind of support many thought was there when he transitioned from being a gubernatorial candidate to a senatorial candidate," Ashley says. "But I think we're headed for a runoff here."

McGuigan says the makeup of Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District, which includes nearly all of Oklahoma County, plus Pottawatomie and Seminole Counties, helped fashion and mold Lankford as a Congressman to have enough rural sensitivity and awareness to do well outside of urban areas.

"In some respects, it may come down to personality," McGuigan says. "Randy is a very honorable man. T.W. is a young man, not a lot maybe of meat, but certainly a lot of potential. It comes across every time you hear him give a speech. And then you have Lankford, who has a record who, arguably, is the closest analogy to being in the U.S. Senate, and that's being in the U.S. House. So then it comes down to the individuals."

Lankford's Candidacy Opens Up 5th District

For the second time in four years, Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District is vacant, leading to a crowded field of six Republicans, three Democrats, a Libertarian and two independent candidates seeking election to that seat.

Shapard says he's almost certain there's going to be a runoff, and expects four competitive candidates in that race for two spots.

"Two of them are fighting for Edmond. That's their base. That would be (former Corporation Commissioner) Patrice Douglas and (State Sen.) Clark Jolley. That's where the largest share of Republicans are in the Fifth District," Shapard says. "You have Steve Russell, who can fight for some of the areas of Oklahoma County. You have Shane Jett, who could probably sew up [Pottawatomie] and Seminole counties."

Shapard says this race suffers from Tom Coburn's decision to retire.

"None of these candidates thought that they were going to be a candidate just four months ago," Shapard says. "To build an organization, to build a base, to get your name recognition, is very, very difficult."

On the Democratic side, State Sen. Al McAffrey (D-Oklahoma City) faces University of Central Oklahoma professor and 2010 and 2012 nominee Tom Guild, and Seminole County Democratic Party chair Leona Leonard.

"McAffrey, this last session, had a number of bills that were passed and signed by the governor," Ashley says. "I think that's important because it shows that they were able to work with the Republican leadership within the Legislature."

Contentious Superintendent Race Likely Headed For A Runoff As Well

State School Superintendent Janet Barresi was also elected to office in 2010 at the height of the Tea Party movement and vowed to reform the state's public education system.

But her inability to win over support from some educators, administrators and parents has left her vulnerable to challengers within her own party.

"Management of the agency in the first couple of years, and picking fights with your base," are what McGuigan says are the main reasons for Barresi's struggles in this campaign. "I don't blame all of that on her, but that's what happened. It created problems in advancing her agenda."

Shapard says early polling numbers show Barresi has lost the power of incumbency.

"As a Republican, when you walk into School Superintendent, you're walking into an organization that is built around Democrats," Shapard says. "You find yourself at odds almost overnight with just about anybody within the education structure - something I don't think any Corporation Commissioner has to deal with. She's been the tip of the spear. She's been trying to put forth Republican intiatives at the education level, and she's been running into brick walls built by Democrats within how they feel about education."

Barresi is one of seven candidates running in the June 24 primary — three in the GOP race and four in the Democratic race.

Joy Hofmeister and Brian Kelly are challenging Barresi for the GOP nomination.

Oklahoma Democratic Party chairman Wallace Collins says he believes his party has a good chance of taking back the position.

"We're probably looking at both parties having a runoff," McGuigan says. "I wouldn't be surprised at all to see [Freda] Deskin and one of the Democrats in a runoff, and Barresi and either Kelly, or most likely Hofmeister, with Hofmesiter maybe running first."

Corporation Commission - Ignored Race With Big Implications

Republicans who head to the polls Tuesday will choose Oklahoma's next regulator of the oil and gas industry and a wide range of other businesses overseen by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Term-limited state Sen. Cliff Branan of Oklahoma City and former Oklahoma House Speaker Todd Hiett of Kellyville square off in a winner-take-all Republican primary in the race for an open six-year term on the commission. The three-member panel oversees oil and gas production, public utilities, pipelines, trucking and railroads.

Ashley says Hiett hasn’t appeared on a statewide ballot since losing the 2006 lieutenant governor’s race to Jari Askins.

"Hiett almost appears as a newcomer, but at the same time so is Senator Branan," Ashley says. "He was a member of the Senate, he chaired the Senate Energy Committee. It will be interesting, given what is on the ballot for Republicans this year, to see how many voters we lose before we get to the Corporation Commission. The primary race will decide who holds that seat."

No Democrats or independents filed for the office.

Another statewide officeholder who will be determined in next Tuesday's election is Oklahoma's insurance commissioner. Republican incumbent John Doak of Tulsa faces a primary challenge from Bill Viner of Moore. 

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