WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Dan Boren's retirement was expected to make his eastern Oklahoma congressional district a national battleground this year, drawing big money and political operatives from both parties.
But that high-profile race hasn't materialized. The national Democratic Party has yet to throw money or muscle into the state to protect its only Oklahoma seat in Congress, and Republicans have seemed content to wait for Democrats to make the first move.
In the meantime, Democrat Rob Wallace and Republican Markwayne Mullin have been trekking across the 25 counties in the district, which overwhelmingly favors Democrats in registration but has overwhelmingly rejected the last two Democratic presidential candidates. Independent Michael G. Fulks, of Heavener, is also on the ballot.
An open-seat race in a district where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular was quickly targeted by Republicans, and it drew a crowd of GOP candidates, including two who had served in the state Legislature. Two experienced Democrats considered the race but opted not to run; Wallace entered the race last October, when the Republican field was already set.
Wallace, of Fort Gibson, and Mullin, of Westville, were both forced into runoffs, but both easily won those late August contests, setting up the general election race.
Since the district was redrawn in 2001 to include the southeastern Oklahoma counties often referred to collectively as “Little Dixie,” only Democrats have won the seat — former Rep. Brad Carson and then Boren, of Muskogee, who has held it since 2005.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, who has served as chairman and political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the national Democratic Party likely would have gotten involved in the race by now if it were planning to do so. For Democrats, not investing heavily in the race at this point “is like running up the white flag,” he said.
“I think this is largely going to be left to the two candidates,” Cole said.
Wallace Collins, chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said, “I don't think that's necessarily the case.”
Collins said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the arm of the national party that works on U.S. House races, is monitoring the 2nd District congressional race but has not yet been convinced to commit resources to it.
“I think they think it's winnable,” Collins said. “They've got their toe in the water and they can't decide whether to jump in or not.”
The party campaign committees can make direct contributions to the candidates within limits and donate money to the state parties for various activities.
Matt Pinnell, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said the Republican campaign committee would be “helpful” in the race.
But the biggest investments typically made by the national parties in U.S. House and Senate races are through television ads produced and paid for independently of the campaigns. Neither party has reported producing ads or buying airtime in the 2nd District.
There was speculation that special interest groups and so-called super-PACs (political action committees) might also run television or radio spots, but, with about three weeks left before the election, that hasn't happened.
Wallace said in an interview last week that he wanted the race to stay local.
“I hope they'll let us have this discussion at home,” he said. “I hope we're able to conclude this without the influence of people who don't live here or share our values.”
Mullin and Wallace have not used their own campaign ads so far to draw distinctions on Medicare, taxes, the farm bill and other issues they might face in the next Congress. Instead, both are campaigning against Washington and trying to convince voters that they're just like them.
Wallace has pledged to protect the eastern Oklahoma water used for recreational purposes, saying many in the area make their living from it. Although conflicts over Oklahoma water are currently being fought in federal courts, Wallace said the next congressman must be vigilant over any agency — including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — that might have jurisdiction.
Mullin has been blasting the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act and regulations that he says are hurting small businesses.
Though the candidates sometimes appear at forums together, there has been only one debate scheduled — a 30-minute faceoff on Oct. 29 at Rogers State University in Claremore.