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 Poll.com 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.)
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.