Republican Mary Fallin may not like the role of early favorite in this year's historic gubernatorial race: Her Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, has come from behind to win her last two statewide contests.
Askins beat the favorite in the 2006 lieutenant governor general election, partly by loaning her campaign $880,000 and getting the endorsement of Gov. Brad Henry, so popular in the state that year he won 67 percent of the vote in his re-election bid.
Tuesday, Askins overtook Attorney General Drew Edmondson in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, partly by loaning her campaign $677,000 and getting the endorsement of former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer.
Fallin, the state's first woman lieutenant governor, and Askins, who succeeded her, are vying to become the first female governor of Oklahoma.
Henry, who is prohibited from seeking a third term as governor, said last week he is supporting Askins in the Nov. 2 general election. The governor said he would make a more formal announcement later but that Askins "is an outstanding public servant and has been an invaluable partner in my administration."
"She's been through tough races," said Neva Hill, a political consultant. "She has the reputation ... of knowing how to put together a good ground game like she did four years ago."
It's doubtful Fallin will take her campaign for granted, despite early polling that suggest she has an advantage. Fallin witnessed the meltdown of Republican Steve Largent in the 2002 gubernatorial election, a race some of her supporters then said she should have sought.
Largent, the early favorite, lost in a three-way race to the underdog Henry, who seemed to pick up his campaigning efforts after Switzer endorsed him.
"We're looking at a classic Oklahoma election with the real swing voters being conservative Democrats," said Pat McFerron, director of survey research for Cole, Hargrave, Snodgrass and Associates, a group that handles Republican political campaigns. "If it had been Edmondson with the nomination, it would have been different. The Jari Askins supporters would have been in play, but the Drew Edmondson people will not flip to Mary."
Nearly 513,000 voters cast ballots in Tuesday's primary; it's expected about 1 million will vote in November.
"The key is that 400,000 to 500,000 people who did not vote in the primary," McFerron said. "The primary voters will line up behind their nominee. People who don't care enough to vote in the primaries, or have reason to, are the ones who decide the general election."
Fallin has won every elective office she has sought, going back to 1990. Askins stumbled in her first bid for elective office, but has won every race since.
Fallin won without a runoff in a four-way race, winning 54.8 percent of the vote. State Sen. Randy Brogdon, of Owasso, received 39.4 percent of the votes. Brogdon has not yet publicly endorsed Fallin.
Ben Odom, a former state Democratic party official, said Fallin was expected to win a higher percentage and her underperformance may cause some support to drift. He doesn't see a large gap between the two.
"Mary has a slight lead at this point, but I don't think it's anything she ought to feel good about," he said.
A statewide telephone survey of 500 likely voters in Oklahoma conducted July 28 by Rasmussen Reports showed Fallin ahead of Askins, 57-36 percent. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Askins won 50.3 percent of the vote, or just 1,493 more votes out of 263,649 cast, in her win over
Odom said Askins' surprise victory last week may allow her to continue her momentum.
Edmondson pledging immediately to back Askins could also help.
McFerron said he believes Fallin has about a 15-point edge over Askins.
"Can she hold onto it? I think she'll be able to," he said. "But I think there will be times in the campaign where it appears that it's getting very close. It's going to be really tough for Jari Askins to run away from Barack Obama who is incredibly negative here even if her only connection is they are members of the same party."
McFerron said he anticipates Fallin will pick up most of Brogdon's voters.
"Brogdon probably got some votes of people that knew Fallin was going to win and just wanted to have a little bit of a protest vote against government in general," he said. "I think they come back to Fallin in the general election. I think you'll find out in the general election that she has near unanimous Republican support."
Odom said Fallin will need to change her style of campaign ads to be successful this year.
"The No. 1 thing she's going to have to battle in this campaign is a perceived lack of gravitas to deal with the issues," Odom said. "Her 'I love Oklahoma'-type commercials aren't going to hack it this year. People are very aware that Oklahoma faces tough choices and budget problems.
"Folks are getting tired of the usual fluff."
Hill said both candidates shouldn't "dumb down the voter and just assume that they don't want to know information. ... People really are