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Plenty of Heart and Plenty of Hope

Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.) is being urged by state and national Democrats to challenge Sen. Don Nickles (R) in 2004 and is considering the possibility, sources said Wednesday.

“He is, without question, entertaining the idea of running for the Senate in Oklahoma irrespective of what Nickles does,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the situation.

The news of a potential Carson challenge comes less than one week before the Oklahoma Senator is set to hold his first in-state fundraiser of the 2004 cycle, spurring speculation that he is leaning toward running for re-election.

On Monday, Nickles will host Commerce Secretary Don Evans at an event designed to improve on the $55,000 he raised in the first three months of the year — a meager total but still almost $50,000 more than Carson brought in during that time.

“With the 2004 election fast approaching, I must begin to prepare now,” Nickles wrote in a letter informing donors of the event.

Nickles had recently told Roll Call that he would not make a decision on whether to run for re-election until April 2004, pushing back his previous deadline of late this fall.

Retirement speculation has mushroomed since Nickles was shut out of a leadership role following the resignation of Majority Leader-in-waiting Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in late 2002.

In the event he ultimately retires, former Rep. J.C. Watts leads the list of potential Republican candidates, but Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys are also mentioned.

Nickles’ office had no comment about the news of a potential Carson candidacy or about his re-election plans.

Democrats were bullish about the possibility, however.

“I am putting my two cents’ worth in that Brad Carson needs to be our candidate regardless [of what Nickles does],” said Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairman Jay Parmley.

Carson would be the first major recruit of the cycle for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“Despite what some people believe, Oklahoma is a state we can certainly win in 2004,” said DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse. Woodhouse would not talk specifically about Carson, saying only: “We are pleased to have several potential candidates for the race in Oklahoma.”

At first glance, Nickles does not appear to be among the most vulnerable Republican Senators up for re-election in 2004.

First elected at 31, Nickles has had only one serious challenge in his 23 years in the Senate, coming in 1986. That year Nickles faced off against then-Rep. Jim Jones (D) and even in a strong year nationally for Democrats, Nickles won with 55 percent.

In his last re-election race, Nickles faced an unknown Democratic candidate, winning with 66 percent of the vote.

Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that “Oklahoma is a strong state for Republicans at the presidential level” and called Nickles “an extremely strong Senator.”

Parmley acknowledged that running against Nickles would be more risky than an open-seat situation, but added “Brad Carson seems to be a risk-taker.” He added that no Oklahoma Senator has ever been elected to serve five terms.

Carson, 36, was first elected to the House in 2000 after winning surprisingly easy victories in both a contested primary and general election.

In the primary — and subsequent runoff — he faced off against state Rep. Bill Settle, who was the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Carson led the three-way primary with 45 percent of the vote and defeated Settle by 13 points in the runoff.

The general election pitted Carson against former auto dealer Andy Ewing, the handpicked successor of then-Rep. Tom Coburn (R). Carson won that race with 55 percent.

In the 2001 redistricting process, Oklahoma lost a Congressional seat, and Carson’s 2nd district grew to encompass almost all of eastern Oklahoma. Showing both his political savvy and statewide ambitions, Carson fought successfully to expand his district into the Oklahoma City media market.

As a result, Carson drew a primary challenge from Mike Mass, a state legislator and former state party chairman.

He crushed Mass 64 percent to 31 percent and won 74 percent in the general election.

“He doesn’t just settle for winning,” said Parmley. “It is not enough [for him] to get 51 percent, he wants 70 percent.”

Democratic strategists believe that in addition to Carson’s aggressiveness, his moderate profile could make him a formidable challenger to Nickles.

“No Oklahoma Democrat is going to win by being a straight party-line thinker,” said Parmley.

Carson has carefully constructed his profile in a moderate mold both legislatively and symbolically.

He stands almost dead-center ideologically within the House and is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a working group of moderate and conservative Democratic lawmakers.

On the symbolic side, Carson returned a $2,000 contribution last year from HILLPAC, the leadership political action committee of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a refund first reported in Roll Call.

“We want to avoid things that just get us into needless controversy,” Carson said at the time.

Recent electoral history has also emboldened Democrats in their attempts to take down the titans of Sooner State Republican politics.

In 2002, little-known state Sen. Brad Henry (D) beat former Rep. Steve Largent (R) in the governor’s race, one of the biggest upsets of the cycle.

“We beat Steve Largent, we can beat anybody,” said Parmley. “Don Nickles doesn’t even compare.”

Alan Secrest, the pollster who oversaw Henry’s victory, said that “Oklahoma is a state that is much more competitive than conventional wisdom gives it credit for being.”

It is important to note, though, that Henry’s victory — with 43 percent of the vote — was due in no small part to a strong Independent candidate who provided an outlet for a number of Republicans dissatisfied with Largent.

Also, in a more sobering race for Democrats in 2002, former Gov. David Walters (D), unable to shake past ethical lapses, was hammered by Sen. James Inhofe (R), 57 percent to 36 percent.

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