Management style appears to be the dividing line between candidates for Oklahoma County sheriff, but will party politics also play a role?
Campaign managers for the incumbent, John Whetsel, and his challenger, Darrell Sorrels, said no. But it's clear Sorrels, a Republican, is using party affiliation as a discerning factor between himself and Whetsel, a Democrat.
In an Aug. 22 speech to the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, Sorrels emphasized he is a conservative constitutionalist who will limit ties between the county sheriff's office and the federal government.
“A sheriff can protect his citizens and his county against the federal government,” he said, adding that he would not accept federal grants as sheriff.
Sorrels also supported Rep. Charles Key, R-Oklahoma City, a self-described “constitutional patriot,” in the August runoff election for Oklahoma County court clerk. Keys ultimately lost the race, two-to-one.
Whetsel, who confirmed his office typically accepts $300,000 to $400,000 in annual federal technology grants, said he is a conservative Democrat — the type who supports gun ownership rights and who has received the endorsement of all but one of the county's Republican elected officials.
“I don't run with a label, and quite frankly I don't think law enforcement should be about politics,” he said.
Voting results in 2004 and 2008 demonstrate Whetsel's party alignment has not been a liability in previous elections despite heavy wins by Republican candidates in other local, state and national races.
Whetsel won 165,000 votes to his opponent's 100,000 votes in 2004 when voter registration indicated Republicans outnumbered Democrats by nearly 5,000. In contrast, incumbent Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry 174,741 to 97,298 in Oklahoma County in that election.
In 2008, Whetsel won 169,000 to 104,000 when party identification among county voters was nearly equal. Republican John McCain beat Democrat Barack Obama with 59 percent of the Oklahoma County vote in that election.
As of Oct. 5, 2012, there were 178,333 registered Republicans, 164,655 Democrats and 56,656 independents in Oklahoma County.
“It might be stronger this time than it has been, the hurdle (Whetsel) has to jump, but I would tell you he's jumped that hurdle every time before,” said Pat McPherson, a Republican strategist in charge of polling for Cole, Hargrave, Snodgrass and Associates in Oklahoma City. “When it comes to offices such as sheriff, voters are not as partisan as they are in races for president.”
Even with an increase in straight-party voting — figures show 59.5 percent of Republican votes cast in 2008 in Oklahoma County were straight-party, compared to 54.7 percent four years prior — it is not expected to make a difference in the sheriff's race.
When checking a straight-party box, a voter can opt for an opposing party in a single line vote in county races, said Pat Hall, a former head of the Oklahoma Democratic Party who is managing Whetsel's re-election campaign.
“The only hope that (Sorrels) has would be if there is large Republican straight-party voting,” Hall said. “Probably instead of 65 percent of the votes or higher, (Whetsel) will get 62 percent of the vote. But you have to remember, a lot of those straight-party votes are also Democrats.”
If anything, campaign fundraising and spending may be the deciding factor in the race.
Financial disclosure reports filed with the state ethics commission last month indicate Whetsel had raised more than $315,000 in individual contributions compared to $12,500 raised by Sorrels. Subtract $255,000 in carry-over from Whetsel's 2008 campaign, and the incumbent has still raised almost five times that of his challenger.
And as of Aug. 30, Whetsel's campaign had spent 12 times that of his opponent, according to the reports.
One of Sorrels' campaign managers, Carol Knight, owner of Freedom Bail Bonds in Oklahoma City, said those figures don't intimidate her.
“We don't care if they give us money, we care if they give us votes,” Knight said. “I'm not concerned with how much money's in the Whetsel campaign, and I'm not concerned with what Whetsel's doing. We're going to talk to people, we're going to get the vote, and I think we have the candidate that's going to win. Otherwise I wouldn't be working for him.”