WASHINGTON — After long runoff campaigns that were short on substance, Democratic and Republican voters in eastern Oklahoma will pick their nominees Tuesday for a congressional race that could become a national battleground contest this fall.
Republicans believe the retirement of Rep. Dan Boren, of Muskogee, the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation, has created a pickup opportunity in a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic in voter registration but composed primarily of rural conservatives.
Democrats are ready to defend the district, which includes some of the poorest counties in the state, with attacks on Republican budget proposals that would affect health care programs for the elderly and poor.
On the Democratic side, Muskogee seed company owner Wayne Herriman, a political newcomer who has put $275,000 of his own money into the race, is facing former state and federal prosecutor Rob Wallace, of Fort Gibson, who has been endorsed by several prominent Democrats in the state, including three former governors.
Republican voters will choose between plumbing company owner Markwayne Mullin, of Westville, and state Rep. George Faught, of Muskogee.
The two-month runoff campaigns were twice as long as in the past because of new federal requirements for absentee ballots being sent to voters abroad, but they didn't produce twice as many debates.
In fact, only one head-to-head debate was held in the 2nd District congressional contests, that on the Republican side.
Herriman refused to debate Wallace and spent much of his time attacking Wallace's prior business activities and the plea bargains made by Wallace's office while he was a district attorney.
In an interview, Herriman said: “Rob Wallace was not willing to answer a lot of questions about his background. How do you debate someone in regard to the issues when he won't even talk about his character?”
Wallace responded, “His questions about my background are ridiculous.”
Wallace said he passed rigorous background checks when he was at the U.S. Justice Department and was chosen for a task force on organized crime and a teaching assignment in Russia.
Herriman, Wallace said, “wants to attack, attack, attack instead of talking about the issues in this race. He's refused to engage on the issues.”
Herriman said he has heard from voters about the negativity. “I talk about it as well,” he said. “It's not been fun.”
But he said part of the campaign process for candidates is laying bare their pasts so voters can judge their character.
“My life is exposed,” he said.
To Wallace, the issues are protecting the state's water from out-of-state interests, creating jobs and preserving Social Security and Medicare. Though water rights would seem to be primarily a state concern, Wallace said the next congressman from eastern Oklahoma must be a leader on the issue who can monitor federal agencies with oversight over Indian tribes and certain lakes.
Herriman also has sought to portray his opponent as the type of establishment-backed candidate that goes to Washington as a ready-made part of a failed system.
“People are tired of electing the same people all the time who aren't getting anything done in Washington,” Herriman said.
Wallace said the numerous endorsements he has received have enhanced the credibility of his campaign. Moreover, he said, the campaign has attracted nearly 1,200 distinct donors and a network of volunteers.
“It's a three-lap race,” he said. “There's going to be another lap for someone, and I hope it's me.”
Mullin was unavailable for comment last week, according to his campaign spokesman. The political neophyte has raised more money than any of the other candidates, recently topping $1 million, with $284,000 of that from his own bank account.
Faught first ran for the state Legislature six years ago, when he was 44, after operating his carpet cleaning business for 20 years. He scoffed at Mullin's charge that he's a career politician.
On the contrary, he said, the experience he gained in the Oklahoma House will allow him to go to Washington ready to tackle the issues Congress is currently confronting.
“I know how the process works,” he said.
Faught pounced on the fact that Mullin endorsed a single-payer health care system for all without, apparently, realizing that he was essentially advocating government-run coverage.
An outspoken opponent of the health care law passed in 2010, Faught said elements of the law are being implemented and “you've got to have an understanding of what it is.”
Though Faught wants people to focus on his competency and experience, the negative tone of his campaign has drawn some criticism. Faught has been particularly relentless in suggesting that Mullin may be charged criminally for providing a gun to a felon years ago.
Faught said there was a bit of “kill the messenger” in the backlash he has received but that every concern he raised was from public records and would likely be used by the Democratic nominee in the race.
“This is an important race, not only for the 2nd District but for all of Oklahoma and the entire nation,” Faught said, adding that the Republican nominee had to be prepared for a tough general election campaign.
“It's not just going to be a slam dunk for the Republicans,” he said.