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.
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.
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