WASHINGTON — As six Republican candidates swarm over the sprawling congressional district in eastern Oklahoma, the Democrats vying for the open seat seem to be campaigning under the radar in an area that is dominated by their party's voters.
“I've had a lot of people ask me who's running for Congress on the Democratic side,” said former state Sen. Kenneth Corn, the Oklahoma Democratic Party's chairman of the 2nd congressional district.
“The Republicans seem to be getting most of the attention.”
That likely will change in the next several days, as voters start to focus on their choices in the June 26 primary.
Rep. Dan Boren, of Muskogee, the only Democrat in Oklahoma's seven-person congressional delegation, is retiring. The seat is expected to be a target for the national Republican Party since the district went overwhelmingly for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, despite the fact that Democratic voters outnumber Republican by more than two to one.
For Democrats, the June 26 contest is among Wayne Herriman, a seed company owner from Muskogee; Rob Wallace, a former district attorney and federal prosecutor from Fort Gibson; and Earl E. Everett, a retired schoolteacher from Fort Gibson.
Everett, who is 78, is not waging an extensive campaign and said he decided to file for the seat mainly to register his displeasure with former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson's endorsement of Wallace.
Corn, of Tishomingo, predicts that Everett will get up to 4 percent of the vote and said he is hoping that won't be enough to force a runoff between Herriman and Wallace; should neither get just more than 50 percent of the vote, the two will have to use valuable resources for a runoff that could otherwise be saved for what will be a contentious and competitive general election.
For the most part, Herriman, 59, and Wallace, 48, differed little in recent interviews on the major issues in Washington. Both spoke as conservative Democrats who didn't embrace their national party's stances on health care reform and tax hikes but vowed to protect Medicare and Social Security.
Boren said his polling of Democrats in the district — which stretches from Rogers County near Tulsa to the southeastern part of the state referred to as Little Dixie — shows 90 percent identify themselves as moderates or conservatives.
“Our district is much more populist,” Boren said. “It has pockets of (organized) labor. It's overwhelmingly low-income voters. Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid — those are very important programs. People are very socially conservative. It's pro-life, it's pro-gun, it's not for gay marriage.”
Corn said: “I think the voters in this district by and large are conservative Democrats. They think the government has a role, but they don't want to see it overreach.”
Wallace has some political experience, having won a district attorney race in 1998, and is running the kind of polished and expensive campaign that includes consultants, paid research, paid staff members — and staff housing — and endorsements from prominent Democrats, including former Gov. Brad Henry.
Herriman, on the other hand, “is as new as a novice can be in politics,” Corn said.
He's doing much of the work himself and paying for the rest primarily with his own money. He put in another $20,000 last week, pushing his personal loans to $215,000.
Though he's not pumping out news releases and position papers, Herriman is running an ad in most of the 25 counties that comprise the district. In it, he emphasizes his “real life experience” and is shown loading bags of seed into a pickup.
“We can't fix things by sending the same lawyers-politicians to Congress,” the narrator says in a direct dig at Wallace.
Wallace's ad shows him shooting a rifle at a water bottle with a Texas map on it, a double-barreled message of Second Amendment support and protection of Oklahoma's water supply from out-of-state interests.
Corn said there is likely still “a huge number” of undecided voters as the election nears and that people will make up their minds based on which candidate “speaks to them.”
Ultimately, the winner may have to battle the national Republican Party's money and negative ads, but Corn said he thinks the national Democratic Party will join the fray. The party can't lose the seat if it's trying to regain the U.S. House, Corn said.
At a glance
of June 5: