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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As Coffee sees it, Coburn wants to cut government waste while still doing things important for his state. For example, he wants to reverse Oklahoma's status as a donor state for transportation dollars and secure federal funding for a major road project in Oklahoma City. He has long wanted to radically transform Medicare and Social Security. Coffee even surmises Oklahoma would receive more federal help if the GOP retained control of the Senate, where Oklahoma's other senator, Jim Inhofe, chairs the Environment and Public Works committee.

The GOP congressman agrees that Oklahoma will benefit from a Senate team that works well with the president. He says Coburn exhibits badly needed leadership on entitlements, while Carson's record is a matter of concern.

"Every vote [Carson has cast] for four years has been a calculation for a run for the U.S. Senate," the congressman said. "You don't really know what he believes. I guess we'll figure it out if he gets to the Senate....My guess is he'll drift to the left."

Coburn's campaign cites instances in which Carson appears to have changed his position, and GOP operatives say his failure to support a budget plan for FY 2005 is evidence of political calculation. At least you know where Coburn stands, they say.

Despite Coburn's verbal blunders, the race has stayed close. Carson, meanwhile, may have overplayed his hand with an ad berating Coburn for not voting to give the Federal Emergency Management Agency more money after tornadoes pummeled Oklahoma in 1999. The Daily Oklahoman, truth-squadding the ad, revealed that Coburn had voted for the FEMA appropriation covering the period of the tornadoes. In a statement clarifying his position, Coburn added, "The agency had a billion-dollar surplus, and the additional money would not have gone to help the victims in Oklahoma."

Carson rejects the liberal label, and it is politically important for him that it not stick. He opposes Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's proposal to raise taxes on the top 2 percent of income earners, which he says would hurt small businesses. He says grandstanding against President Bush's judicial nominees is not the way to fix a confirmation system that has been abused from both sides of the aisle.

"If we don't like who [the president] is appointing, we should beat [the president]," Carson said, calling the withdrawal of Miguel Estrada, a Bush nominee to the D.C. Circuit who met unyielding Democratic opposition, a tragedy of the process.

A Congressional Quarterly analysis finds Carson has voted with his fellow Democrats about 75 percent of the time, and with President Bush 50 percent of the time. In 2002, Carson's American Conservative Union score was 40--which was 20 points higher than John Kerry's.

Oklahoma hasn't had a Democratic senator since David Boren retired in 1994. It did elect a Democratic governor in 2002, but Brad Henry won largely thanks to a strong third-party candidate who peeled away votes from the Republican. The other four members of the state's congressional delegation are Republicans.

In his 2002 WEEKLY STANDARD article, Carson argued that the Democrats had become the party of elites and minorities, and had forgotten regular folks like the people of Oklahoma. But he seemed to exempt himself from the charge. "There are exceptions, of course," he wrote--perhaps foreshadowing the Democrats' hopes for him on November 2.

Beth Henary is a writer living in Austin, Texas.