WASHINGTON — The six Republicans hoping to succeed Oklahoma’s only Democratic congressman are competing for a relatively small electorate in the eastern part of the state that is still dominated by registered Democrats.
In 2010, when six Republicans also vied for the GOP nomination in the 2nd Congressional District, fewer than 25,000 GOP voters went to the polls in a district of nearly 700,000 people and nearly 400,000 registered voters.
Turnout easily could be much higher in the primary June 26, since some of the Republican candidates are well-funded and are vying for an open seat that the national GOP is targeting this year.
Working for votes
But the sprawling district, which includes all or part of 25 counties, has the candidates chasing GOP votes in places that few exist.
In McCurtain County, for instance, there are 2,277 registered Republicans, compared to 12,277 Democrats, according to the most recent Oklahoma Election Board statistics. In Pittsburg County, Democrats outnumber Republicans 18,291 to 5,540.
Rogers County, home to many people who work in Tulsa, is the only one in the district with more Republicans than Democrats. Overall, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one — 259,813 to 109,627.
A political divide
Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, who is retiring, said, “The politics are a little bit different when you cross I-40.”
North of the interstate, many conservative Democrats just changed their registration to Republican — not so in the southern part of the district, long known as Little Dixie, he said.
Tom Montgomery, the chairman of the 2nd District for the Oklahoma Republican Party, said Democrats in the southern part of the district generally won’t change their registration because local races still are traditionally dominated by Democrats.
“They want to be able to vote for sheriff or county commissioner,” Montgomery, of Muskogee, said, adding that the GOP is trying to make inroads at the local political level.
Ideologically, however, “there’s very little daylight between the Republicans and the conservative Democrats,” Montgomery said. “The majority of the Democrats are just as conservative as the Republicans at the national level.”
Republican presidential candidates have won the 2nd District in the past three elections; Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, got 66 percent of the vote.
Boren said polling done for his previous campaigns showed only 10 percent of the Democrats in the district identified themselves as liberals.
The rest identified as moderates or conservatives, he said.
God, gays and guns
No Republican has won the district since it was redrawn after the 2000 census — when Oklahoma lost one of its six congressional seats — and the southeastern Oklahoma counties were included.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, held the 2nd District from 1995 through 2000, before the southern counties were added. But he said a Republican candidate could win it now, even with the Little Dixie portion.
“They’re conservative southern Democrats,” he said. “What they hear out of the national Democratic Party is not what they believe in. … It’s cultural.”
Echoing Sen. Jim Inhofe’s comment in 1994 that his race that year would be won on “God, gays and guns,” Boren said the district is pro-life, pro-gun and against gay marriage.
Boren said that he always ran as a conservative and tried to identify himself through his beliefs, rather than his party.
Spending for votes
So far, the GOP candidates are running as fiscal and social conservatives, embracing the budget priorities of U.S. House Republicans and emphasizing their opposition to illegal immigration, abortion, the health care reform law, gun laws and gay marriage.
Through March, the six candidates had spent more than $700,000 combined on the race, with four of the six candidates spending more than $100,000. Spending could easily top $1 million by June 26 as candidates buy television ads for the last push. And most predict a runoff, meaning the two who get the most votes will have to spend money for two more months for what will likely be far fewer votes.
Matt Pinnell, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said the candidates “obviously have to spend it because it’s such a competitive primary.”
The money will have benefits beyond the primaries, he said, since it will build name identification for the general election.
Registration as of June 5: