The Magazine

The Boren Identity

Young Dan Boren makes his way in Washington.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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OKLAHOMA'S NEWEST CONGRESSMAN, DAN Boren, is anti-tax, pro-gun, and anti-partial-birth-abortion. He supports the Federal Marriage Amendment and favors broad tort reform. Adorning the floor of his House of Representatives office is a bearskin rug, and mounted on the walls are several deer heads. "PETA won't be stopping by here anytime soon," Boren jokes in his rural, aw-shucks drawl. He shows off a photograph of himself and fellow Oklahoman Toby Keith, the anti-Dixie Chicks country singer, and boasts that he was one of only two candidates Keith endorsed in the 2004 election. The other was, of course, George W. Bush. Bush went on to carry Boren's district by 59 points. All of this might be standard fare for a Republican--but Boren is a Democrat.

Indeed, Democratic politics are a Boren family tradition. Dan's father is David Boren, who represented Oklahoma in the Senate from 1979 to 1994. His grandfather, Lyle Boren, served five terms in the House. As the Oklahoma Daily observes, the Borens are "the first family west of the Mississippi . . . to have had three generations serve in the U.S. Congress."

The youngest Boren, 31, wasn't planning on running for Congress after serving just one term in the state legislature. But when Democrat Brad Carson gave up his seat in Oklahoma's "Little Dixie" second district to run for the Senate, Boren threw his hat in the ring. "House seats just don't come up that often," he explains.

The primary was his toughest battle on the way to the House. The other Democratic candidate was Kalyn Free, who had the backing of the abortion lobby (Emily's List sunk $500,000 into Free's campaign and independent ads), over a dozen labor groups, and Howard Dean's organization, Democracy for America.

Boren was grateful that his opponent was so endorsed. "Frankly, they were a boon to my campaign," he says. "Those people don't represent Oklahomans." Boren took 58 percent of the vote and avoided a runoff. He then sailed into office with a landslide victory over Republican horse-breeder Wayland Smalley.

How do Democrats like Boren and Carson do so well in solid Bush country? Boren points out that much of his constituency is made up of blue-collar workers, retirees, and young people--all traditional Democratic voters. Statewide, registered Democrats actually outnumber Republicans by 17 percentage points. But Boren was the only Democrat Oklahomans sent to Washington last year. How'd he do it?

Boren says he appealed to Bush's values voters and Republicans generally by emphasizing his commitment to traditional values and by reassuring the business community of his anti-tax positions. His support of the Second Amendment, which won him the NRA's endorsement in the primary, was also important.

One thing he knows for sure about his district is that there are only a handful of national Democrats he could bring home to campaign with him. He cites former Louisiana senator John Breaux and Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. as two. "It would kill me to bring in a liberal to Oklahoma," Boren explains.

Boren has already formed a few cross-party friendships. He has bonded with Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan, whom he met at freshman orientation and describes as "having a lot of depth." The two were featured together in a recent David Broder column about new moderates.

He also has a close relationship with Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, who is his first cousin by marriage. The two hunt together and often join each other for breakfast. "Republicans will like working with him," Ryan says. "Hopefully Nancy Pelosi will come to understand that she'll have to accommodate people like him."

And he won't have to worry about fitting in with his GOP colleagues. "The Oklahoma delegation has always been able to work in a bipartisan manner, and I have every confidence that Dan Boren will continue that tradition," the fourth district's Tom Cole says.

But as lovable as Boren is to Republicans, he won't be easily won over on Social Security reform. He says he hasn't seen the president's plan yet, nor has he been approached about the issue by either party's leadership, but he won't back any form of privatization. "We have a lot of elderly people who rely on it," he says. "I want to make sure it's solvent."

A month into his term, Boren is busy getting his office ready and traveling back to Oklahoma on weekends to plan his upcoming wedding. He has been selected for the House Armed Services Committee and has joined the coalition of conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, who gave him a rare primary endorsement.