The Magazine

The Perfect Democrat?

How to win in Oklahoma if you're not a Republican.

Oct 25, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 07 • By BETH HENARY
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Marietta, Oklahoma

IN 2002, Oklahoma Democrat Brad Carson described his party's self-awareness problem in the pages of this magazine. "The party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt," Carson wrote, "still sees itself as representing the common people, the salt of the earth, the hardscrabble men and women of The Grapes of Wrath, the Tom Joads of the world. But, despite the pretense, it simply isn't true. Blue-collar Americans have largely rebuffed the Democratic party."

If Carson--a congressman from eastern Oklahoma and the Democratic contender for the Senate seat being vacated by conservative Republican Don Nickles--were right, one would have to predict his resounding defeat on November 2. Oklahoma is full of ordinary Americans, and the challenges facing the state include an aging population, creaky infrastructure, and job loss. Besides, it is a thoroughly Republican state. It gave George W. Bush 60 percent of the vote in 2000, and polls now show the president ahead by as much as 30 points. National Republicans anxious to hold onto their narrow edge in the Senate are peeved that Nickles's seat is in play at all.

But a poll released by Sooner on October 8 showed the race between Carson and Republican Tom Coburn a statistical dead heat, with 21 percent undecided.

Only the perfect Democratic candidate, combined with a string of Republican fumbles, could have made this contest close. Unfortunately for the GOP, Carson is the perfect Democratic candidate. From Baylor University in Texas, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then studied law at the University of Oklahoma. Early in his legal career he was recognized for his service to the state's poor and indigent, and at 37 he has the true wonk's detailed command of issues--witness his 65-page glossy campaign magazine explaining his plans for western Oklahoma alone.

His opponent is an obstetrician from Muskogee. Coburn, who was Carson's predecessor in Congress, entered the House in the legendary freshman class of 1994, and six years later honored a term-limit promise. He was an anomaly for Oklahoma's 2nd District, which had not sent a Republican to Congress since the 1920s. In Washington he was known for his stubborn insistence on fiscal responsibility and his dislike of political pork. Fellow Republicans called him "bull-headed" and a "burr under the saddle of the party."

Coburn wasn't the GOP establishment's choice for the Senate race. In the primary, party types backed former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys, partly because Coburn entered the race late, but also because he was seen as a weaker general election candidate. In one of many wince-inducing remarks since his primary victory, Coburn referred to state legislators as "crapheads" for not getting done what he thought needed doing in Oklahoma City. Other comments have offended those of Native American heritage, including Carson.

One member of Oklahoma's congressional delegation said the outcome of the race depends on what ultimately captures the public's attention.

"If Brad Carson is able to make this race about what's in Oklahoma's best parochial interest, he'll win," said the congressman, a Republican who asked not to be named. "If it's about who represents the core values of the state, I'll say Tom Coburn does. We'll lose if it's about who brings the most money to the state."

On the stump, Carson hammers on Coburn's aversion to pork, charging that a Senator Coburn wouldn't "fight for Oklahoma." Carson speaks of rural health centers he's brought to his district and says the state needs 50 more. He wants federal dollars to fix roads he calls the worst in the country.

"This campaign is an epic struggle," Carson tells Marietta residents. "I've never heard anybody say that it is not the job of an elected official to fight for the people who put him in office--except for one. And that is Tom Coburn."

A few hours later, in Madill, Carson turns up the volume: "I'm not saying he could have done more, or that he could have tried just a tad bit harder. I'm saying he did nothing."

The Coburn campaign responds by casting Carson as a big-spending liberal. State senator Glenn Coffee says this is fair. He points to a Club for Growth ad that charges Carson proposed $787 billion in new spending in the last Congress. ("He's a bigger spender than John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton combined," the voice-over says.)