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Time For Istook to Take Off Those Rose-Colored Glasses

Every week, I receive my share of press releases from Members of Congress, Congressional hopefuls and interest groups. Virtually all of them include some spin, some of it believable, some of it not. It is, of course, best not to take spin too seriously, which is why I ignore many press releases, allowing them to evaporate into nothingness. [IMGCAP(1)]

But every once in a while I receive a press release that is so bizarre and so at odds with reality that I’m forced to shine a bright light on it and set the record straight. I received such a release this week.

The headline of the release from Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) didn’t send up a red flag: “Istook Announces Intent To Run for Re-Election, Not Senate.” It sounded like any of the thousand releases every journalist who covers campaigns receives.

But what followed was not even a reasonable approximation of reality. “Congressman Ernest J. Istook (R-Warr Acres) announced today he intends to run for re-election to Oklahoma’s 5th District” — so far so good — “even though he’s the clear Republican front-runner by a 25-point margin for an open U.S. Senate seat.” Ouch.

The idea that Istook ever was the frontrunner for the GOP nomination is pure fantasy. The frontrunner for that nomination was and remains Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys.

Istook’s assertion of frontrunner status apparently is based on the results of an Aug. 27-28 Wilson Research Strategies survey conducted for “Friends of Ernest Istook.” That poll showed the Congressman with an early 42 percent to17 percent lead over Humphreys in a hypothetical Senate primary matchup.

But the polling memo, written by pollster Chris Wilson, noted Istook’s sizable name recognition advantage over the mayor and added, “Outside of [the] Oklahoma City area, Humphreys is a relative unknown.” In other words, Istook’s “lead” was nothing more than name ID.

The press release took a turn toward the bizarre when it quoted Istook as saying that “nobody can be certain whether another Republican is both willing to make the race and able to win it.”

In fact, Istook has known for weeks that Humphreys has been preparing to run. The mayor made a swing through D.C. weeks ago, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and other influential Oklahoma Republicans have made it clear for weeks that they would back him in a Senate primary.

Humphreys indicated publicly on Monday, just 24 hours after Istook’s release hit, that he intends to enter the race and to do so soon. Are we expected to believe that Istook, who has been planning to run for the Senate for a year and has been monitoring every word written about the contest, didn’t know on Sunday what Humphreys’ plans were for the next day?

If so, then Istook has bigger problems than even I think.

Let’s be clear about Istook’s Senate efforts and prospects. Sooner State Republican insiders have believed for months that if Sen. Don Nickles’ (R-Okla.) seat became open, Humphreys would run for it and win both the nomination and the general election. And they never showed a whit of doubt that the Oklahoma City mayor would be a stronger general election candidate than would Congressman Istook.

Humphreys’ well-known intention to run for the seat also contradicts the Congressman’s truly hilarious comment in the release that, “My own candidacy would discourage other candidates.” I’m still laughing from that one.

Every Member of the House looks in the mirror and sees a Senator, just as most Senators can see themselves in the White House. Certainly, there is nothing unreasonable about Rep. Istook wanting to be a Senator or thinking that, under the right circumstances, he could get elected to the Senate. But the idea that his Senate candidacy might discourage other candidates is too, too ridiculous to accept.

Finally, repeatedly throughout the release the Congressman refers to his position as “a senior member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee” in explaining why he decided against the Senate race. “I appreciate those who have reminded me of how important my current position in the House is,” Istook says.

There is no dispute that Istook’s committee assignment is important to him and to his state. But let’s be clear why some of Istook’s friends have been making the case that he shouldn’t give up his House seat: They didn’t want him to enter the Senate race, and they wanted to give him a graceful way to exit the contest.

Instead of a low-key, graceful exit from the race, in which he praised Humphreys, Istook showed his bitterness at being pushed aside and released a statement that was far more fiction than fact.

While Oklahoma Republicans are likely to unite behind Humphreys, the Democratic nominee is less certain. Rep. Brad Carson (D) is running and is widely regarded as political savvy. But other Democrats reportedly are considering the race, including state Attorney General Drew Edmondson and state Treasurer Robert Butkin. Carson’s strong campaigning skills make him a formidable candidate.

Instead of a GOP Senate blowout, Oklahoma is certain to be the scene of a hard-fought, competitive general election. But Humphreys, as the likely Republican nominee in the race, has an advantage.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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