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The Chase for 60: Is Oklahoma Coming On Line?

With Senate Democrats growing more bullish about their chances of holding 60 seats following the November election, new polling out of Oklahoma suggests that Sen. Jim Inhofe(R) may be in for a serious challenge in the fall.

Oklahoma state Senator Andrew Rice
Oklahoma state Sen. Andrew Rice appears to be making gains against Inhofe -- but will the Sooner State elect a Democrat? (AP Photo)

The survey, which was conducted by Pete Brodnitz for state Sen. Andrew Rice (D-Okla.) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, showed Inhofe at 50 percent and Rice at 41 percent -- a significant increase from a similar poll in June that had the Republican incumbent at 53 percent to 33 percent for the challenger.

Do we believe the numbers? And, if so, does that mean Oklahoma now belongs on the radar screen?

Let's take those key questions one by one.

First, as to the validity of the numbers, it's always worth taking any partisan poll with a grain of salt. BUT, Brodnitz is one of the best pollsters on the Democratic side -- he conducted surveys for Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) and former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.) in 2006 -- and even the Republicans we spoke to about the numbers didn't strongly dispute the state of the race.

Rice's rise (not bad, eh!) is due in large part to a month's worth of television ads by his campaign in which he introduced himself to voters in the state who, up until that point, knew nothing about him.

The ads, which were produced by David Eichenbaum of Struble Eichenbaum Communications are quiet good; the first spot makes note of Rice's work as a Christian missionary as well as the fact that his brother was killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Rice even took a shot at Inhofe for having "lost his way" after 22 years in Washington. The second commercial tells the story of Steffanie Collings, a teenager struck down by a brain tumor and Rice's work on her behalf. It ends with Collings' father saying: "Even though I'm a Republican, Andrew Rice kept his promise to me. We need him in Washington."

That month of television has clearly worked. In Brodnitz's poll, Rice's name identification score went from 29 percent in June to 52 percent in the most recent poll, and the number of Oklahoma voters who view him favorably jumped from 20 percent to 40 percent.

So, it does make sense -- from a political perspective -- that Rice has closed the ballot test gap. But, does a poll taken after a full month of positive television accurately reflect the state of the contest?

On this point, there is far more disagreement. Democrats believe that Oklahoma voters are sick of Inhofe and ready to elect someone new -- no matter his party affiliation. Republicans believe that Inhofe -- like every other incumbent member of Congress -- is suffering from the difficult national political environment but once he engages Rice (read: goes negative), the state's natural partisanship, particularly in a presidential year, will assert itself.

There is truth in both arguments.

Inhofe, a difficult personality, has never been an overwhelming electoral presence but has regularly won his races. After defeating then Rep. Dave McCurdy with 55 percent in a 1994 special election, Inhofe won a full six-year term in 1996 with 57 percent. In 2002, he beat scandal-tarred former governor David Walters with 57 percent of vote.

A major part of Inhofe's success at the ballot box has to do with the partisan nature of the state. The last Democrat to hold a Senate seat in the Sooner State was David Boren, who was first elected in 1978 and resigned his seat in 1994 to take over as the president of the University of Oklahoma. (Oklahoma, of course, is the second best football team in the Big 12 behind the Texas A&M Aggies.) Democrats have had some success at the state level -- Oklahoma's state Senate is split and Democratic Gov. Brad Henry is in his second term -- but have not been able to turn that into wins at the top of the ballot. A Democrat hasn't carried Oklahoma at the presidential level since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Barack Obama won't break that streak this year. (Democrats have been far more successful at the state level -- Gov. Brad Henry is currently in his second term -- but when forced to answer for their national party have struggled.)

In a presidential year, the Republican nature of Oklahoma should assert itself. And, this is a rare state with a competitive Senate race where Republicans would do well to try and link the Democratic nominee to Obama.

(For those truest of political junkies out there, Rice's candidacy also has some similarities to the 2004 Senate bid of Brad Carson; Carson lost to Sen. Tom Coburn by 12 points.)

On the other hand, change is the order of the day in politics nationwide and Rice, a first term state senator, is a far more obvious change agent than Inhofe who has been in Washington since 1986.

Rice has run an effective campaign to date and is relatively well funded with $729,000 in the bank as of July 9. This is a state where the DSCC could play an influential role if they decided to invest on Rice's behalf; it's an inexpensive state in which to advertise and given the financial problems of the National Republican Senatorial Committee it's hard to imagine the GOP would be able to match spending by national Democrats.

Our take: Oklahoma isn't now -- nor will it likely ever be -- on the Friday Senate Line. The partisanship of the state coupled with Rice's inexperience as a candidate make this a longshot for Democrats. But, the race is clearly on the national radar screen now -- yet another potential problem spot that an underfunded and overwhelmed NRSC must address.

By Chris Cillizza  |  August 19, 2008; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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You can't compare Rice/Inhofe to Carson/Coburn. First, there's a lot of affection within Oklahoma for pragmatism. Even a lot of Democrats give credit to Coburn for sticking to his guns on earmarks (views on lesbians in the school bathrooms notwithstanding). Inhofe panders to the earmark crowd. Oklahoma has a strong populist history, and Rice could find a way to tap into that recently dormant sentiment this cycle. Second, Carson came off as long on brains and short on charm and credibility. Coburn had credibility. Inhofe has none of the above. Rice has all of the above.

The GOP has had a lock on Oklahoma for a while, but there's a lot of enthusiasm and support behind Andrew. Depending how the national race turns out, and how the press covers the Senate race, an upset could happen.

Posted by: Jim | August 22, 2008 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Jim Inhofe will win this election.
The Global Warming fanatics want him out and people in Oklahoma know that.

Posted by: Ted K Claremore, OK | August 20, 2008 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Hilarious. Nice try, Aggie, but you've got a long way to go before you even sniff a Big 12 South title, let alone a conference championship.

Keep beating Texas, though.

Posted by: Les | August 20, 2008 2:55 PM | Report abuse

think ralph reed knows: "whatever happened to tom delay"

karl rove: you're an absolute political genius. helping the dems achieve a possible governing majority.

Posted by: jeff | August 20, 2008 12:25 AM | Report abuse

Chris - I take issue with only one thing you said - the "second" best football team in the Big 12? Come on now. I will admit the Dems may not be able to knock out Inhofe but at least give credit where credit is due... Bob Stoops.

Posted by: OU | August 19, 2008 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Name recognition: 29% -> 52% (+23%)
Favorably view: 20% -> 40% (+20%)

That means an 87% conversion rate.

Voters have been burned by all this so-called 'experience' in government. They still have Coburn, so it's not as if they're going to end up with two young guys who haven't been in Washington before. iow, Rice isn't all that risky.

What sort of attacks can Inhofe make? Tear down a missionary? I can't see that going over real well in Oklahoma. Experience is the only card Inhofe's got, and in 2008 the value of that has been collapsing faster and further than house prices.

I expect a lot of voters are wishing they had voted for Brad Carson earlier, and they may be in the mood to make up for that earlier lapse.

Posted by: Tom J | August 19, 2008 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Watch more of Rice's video ads:

Voters want responsible adults who will do their jobs. I think Inhofe's in deeper trouble than he realizes.

Posted by: Tom J | August 19, 2008 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Based on the above assumptions, Democrats could end up with 54 seats. If McCain wins the Presidency, Lieberman would likely be tapped for Secretary of Defense and Republican governor Jodi Rell of Conn. would appoint a Republican US Senator to replace Lieberman. But 54 is the best Democrats can hope for as far as I can see.

Posted by: reason | August 19, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

CC, no way that Democrats can win 60. Lets view the current math to illustrate my point.

Republicans: 49 seats
Democrats: 49 seats
Independents: 2 seats (Lieberman & Sanders)- both caucus with Democrats

Okay, so how can Democrats get to 60 seats? It's little question, barring some grand R revelation or huge R turnout, that Dems. will gain in the senate chase. They should easily have the 51 they need not to need Lieberman anymore. But 60? No way! Susan Collins (Maine) & Norm Coleman (Minn.) look well on their way to reelection. Those 2 races were big hopes for Dems, especially with recruiting US Rep. Tom Allen in Maine. But it looks that both Collins & Coleman will win reelection. In Oregon, Gordon Smith is well in command of the race right now vs. Merkley, who barely beat out Novick in a tough Democratic primary. Smith has alot of money, a fairly moderate record & good standing in the state of Oregon...not to mention a great relationship with Oregon's other US Senator Ron Wyden. A great combo for reelection for Smith.

On the other hand, Democrats are not in real danger of losing any seats. Liendrieu in La. is the only main R pick-up. Liendrieu is the favorite to keep her seat, however. R's will likely try to pick up New Jersey, for lack of better targets. Drew Zimmer is coming on hard vs. Lautenberg, but Lautenburg is up around 48%-42%. He's definately the fav., and when you consider in the fact that NJ is a Democratic state Lautenberg looks good & R's prospects are slim.

Democrats do have a legite claim on winning 5 seats: Virginia, Colorodo, Alaska, New Mexico & New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is the toughest race to win for Dems. Sununu is a savvy politician with a large war chest in a moderate state. McCain on the ticket really helps Sununu, also.
In Colorodo, Schaffer vs. Udall, is a tough & very ugly race with so many out of state groups pounding the candidates. This one is very much up for grabs, with no clear favorite. McCain is likely to win Colorodo & this is a very tough race. Just a thought: Colorodo voted Bush but elected Salazar in 2004.
New Mexico is a very tough race, and it will get much uglier very quickly as things wind down. Stevan Pearce has got the full support of the conservative base & will pound Udall to help himself win over the moderate vote. US Senator Pete Domenici (St. Pete), has fully endorsed Pearce and US Rep. Heather Wilson is also actively supporting Pearce, as Pearce defeated Wilson in the R primary 51%-49%. Udall had no primary, and has the liberal vote behind him. Pearce is just now getting to engage Udall 1 on 1 and is making Udall look unaccountable to state voters by refusing to debate him. Domenici will be on the campaign trail hard for Pearce all month long in October and so will Wilson. Domenici will also appear with Pearce in an ad or 2 that will be ran statewide. Right now, Udall has been focusing on the general and is now ahead, especially with out of state environmental groups hammering Pearce on TV. This is far from over, as Pearce hasn't really began to spend hard on Udall yet. Plus, Domenici, Lyons & Wilson will help Pearce win moderate voters. The Club for Growth, whom spent about $700,000 to help Pearce win the primary vs. Wilson, will surely spend even more to pound Udall in the general. With that, plus Domenici & Wilson serving to build Pearce up & Pearce's naturally exciting the conservative base makes Pearce much harder to beat than polls currently show. This race is very much wide open.
Virginia has been decided & the next US Senator of Va. will be Democrat Mark Warner. That was decided when US Rep. Tom Davis bowed out of the race. The question now is can Obama ride Warner's coattails just enough to edge a win in Va.? I doubt it, but Dems. certainly pick up this senate seat in Va. as John Warner retires & Jim Gilmore is done for.
Finally Alaska is a bit hard to judge. It looks as if though indicted US Senator Ted Stevens will win his primary next Tuesday. As Stevens wins the primary, the question becomes: what next? What will the result of Stevens trial be? Will Stevens "retire" from the US Senate & let Sarah Palin pick the R replacement? Will he proceed to fight his legal challenges & base reelection on being proven innocent? There are too many questions to handicap this race until we see what happens with Stevens after the primary.

Posted by: reason | August 19, 2008 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Inhofe is 73 years old. That's an issue.

As for the experience issue, Rice has accomplished a lot in a short period of time, and isn't about to sit back and do nothing in the future.

Inhofe has been Senator for almost 14 years. Is that really 14 years of experience, or more like one year of experience 14 times?

Posted by: Tom J | August 19, 2008 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Regardless of whether Rice has a chance, it's very healthy for democracy that a Democrat is making a case and running a strong campaign in a Republican state.

More Democrats should wage strong campaigns in strongly Republican states.

And more Republicans should wage strong campaigns in strongly Democratic states.

Hooray for the 50-state strategy!

Posted by: Northern Pike | August 19, 2008 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Even if some folks out there think otherwise, Oklahomans aren't all flat earthers that disbelieve in adverse global climate change.

Come November this may look clearer.

Posted by: RedRiverite | August 19, 2008 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Jim Martin, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate after defeating Vernon Jones in a run-off primary election earlier this month, is now trailing incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss by just six percentage points. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey in the Peach State finds the incumbent ahead of his challenger 48% to 43%.

Posted by: GA also | August 19, 2008 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Inhofe is a clown, plain and simple, doesn't matter which party. We need to boot him out.

Posted by: okie | August 19, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Arlo | August 19, 2008 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Oklahoma also was the home of Woody Guthrie, champion of the common folk, populist patriot ("This Land Is Your Land") whose guitar was emblazoned with the emblematic epitaph: "This machine kills fascists."

Perhaps State Sen. Rice could employ Guthrie's guitar-strumming visage to remind Oklahomans they've got a prouder legacy than that of the curmudgeonly Inhofe.

BUT WILL THE ELECTION EVEN MATTER? Not when government-supported "vigilante injustice" squads are "gang stalking" American citizens:


Posted by: scrivener | August 19, 2008 1:18 PM | Report abuse

This whole idea of 60 is just nuts and I really don't understand why every Senate update is couched in terms of "the quest for 60" and not just "Senate race update."

Every time 60 is mentioned it is noted--correctly--that it simply won't happen. Yet we keep talking about it.

Absolute best case scenario for the Dems is 58, and that would require an unlikely repeat of 2006 (i.e. win all but one tossup).

Posted by: Mitch22 | August 19, 2008 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I'm all for split govt..

the Dems in charge of congress and the senate, mccain as prez.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 19, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I think a lot of republicans are looking at the Presidential polls being so close but are not thinking about enthusiasm.

That is the real x factor and why the repubs have already started on that roll of losing seats. It is not the average polls but the change in who is going to the booths.

enthusiasm levels and disparities are what makes the Rice thing not only possible ...but probable.

Yes, even in Oklahoma.

Posted by: dl | August 19, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

cbl-pdx writes
"This will help Dems in races in other states, maybe even forcing the RSCC to cut their losses with some candidates (read VA and NH) to make sure they win OK."

Yup. Its been noted elsewhere that the mcCain campaign is still spending a lot of time fundraising - but mostly for the RNC, which will presumably spend on his behalf after mcCAin is limited to the public money. BUT, if the RSCC is strapped for cash, will the RNC come to their rescue? Taking the money race as a whole - the Dems are still ahead of the Repubs - even with the 84 million the Repubs get for the McCAin Presidential run.

Posted by: bsimon | August 19, 2008 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Chris nailed the real story here in the last graph (way to bury the lead man). Rice will in all likely hood not win the race (he'll probably loose by about as much as Carson. But, if he's within shouting distance, the DSCC can spend a little of their extra cash and force the RSCC to spend a bit of their dwindling account.

This will help Dems in races in other states, maybe even forcing the RSCC to cut their losses with some candidates (read VA and NH) to make sure they win OK.


Posted by: CBL-PDX | August 19, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Rice has one more advantage that will progressively improve his chances... Inhoffe has to go out on the stump and open his big mouth.

If ever there was a Macaca moment in the making, Inhofe can provide it... Rice is articulate, intelligent and terminally sane.

Inhoffe, on the other hand, lost his marbles long ago, and only the most naive and impressionable Oklahoma voters, or the money-hungry OK oilmen are still supporting him.

Whether they constitute a majority is still the only question, I am guessing that Oklahomans are waking up to the big lie and all the liars who promulgated and promoted it.

And Inhoffe's been one of the biggest.

His cameo in Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" still puts him at the top of the pollution enablers' rogues list, at least for most intelligent Americans, especially those among his own constituency.

Posted by: JEP | August 19, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I think the Democrats are fooling themselves if they think they can take Oklahoma.

I would urge anyone who thinks this to go back and look a the Carson/Coburn race and see that Democratic polling had Carson with a chance till a couple of weeks before the election. In reality he lost big and Kerry lost bigger. I think we will most likely see the same here.

Posted by: peter DC | August 19, 2008 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Inhofe is a brain-dead mouthpiece for the oil industry, and he constantly claims that climate change is a fairy tale. He sounds like a member of the old "flat earth" society: denying scientific reality. Well, Inhofe is bought and paid for by those who benefit from inaction against climate change.

Given all of that, the Democrats should be able to run an effective campaign against Inhofe...if they have the balls to hit hard and to do so relentlessly.

However, this year most Democrats -- especially the Obama campaign -- are running an exceedingly genteel campaign...all of which spells electoral doom unless they can show some backbone.

Posted by: harlemboy | August 19, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

"OK? Who really cares now?

God-zillah, don't take your eye off the VEEP ball now!"

Honestly, I care a lot more about the Senate races than the VP race. The former is going to have a lot more impact on our lives.

Posted by: DDAWD | August 19, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Speaking as an environmentalist, we need to get Inhofe out of the Senate. He has singlehandedly cost America much time in starting the work against environmental destruction.

Posted by: Dori | August 19, 2008 12:15 PM | Report abuse

The Democrats have only a tiny chance of reaching 60 Senators this year, although depending on the climate they could pick up the 59th and 60th next time. 2004 was a good year for Republicans, so the Dems might have the chance to knock off a few weak first term incumbents in 2010.

Regardless, as a Fix commentator pointed out, it doesn't really matter. What you need are 60 votes on the bill at hand. Some Democrats may oppose the healthcare bill, and some Republicans may support it. Obviously the fewer Republicans left in the Senate, the better the chances.

Posted by: Aleks | August 19, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

The Fix writes
"A Democrat hasn't carried Oklahoma at the presidential level since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Barack Obama won't break that streak this year."

I don't disagree, but have to wonder how long that will be the case in the future. I suspect the Obama/Dean 50 state strategy will begin reshaping the map of red/blue states. If there's another Dem wave this year, the Repubs will likely be forced to reevaluate their ideals & rebuild a new coalition. When that happens, will they retain a lock on their traditional strongholds in the south, southwest & mtn west?

Posted by: bsimon | August 19, 2008 11:53 AM | Report abuse

OK? Who really cares now?

God-zillah, don't take your eye off the VEEP ball now!

Liberal bloggers for Gov. Richardson.

Posted by: JC | August 19, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Chris--great story!

Posted by: | August 19, 2008 11:43 AM | Report abuse

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