Despite overt nudging from the Club for Growth — and a Web site set up to garner support for a Senate bid — former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) said that personal considerations will determine whether he ultimately enters the open-seat race in Oklahoma.
In an interview Wednesday, Coburn gave little indication of which way he is leaning, but he acknowledged that he is still contemplating tossing his hat into the GOP primary. He hopes to make a final decision by the end of the month.
“I’m in the process of considering it,” Coburn said.
If Coburn does decide to run, observers and strategists agree that the dynamics of the so-far staid primary would be altered dramatically.
The state’s Republican establishment — including Sens. James Inhofe and Don Nickles — has coalesced behind former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, the current frontrunner for the nomination. Nickles is retiring at the end of this Congress.
Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony (R) is also running in the July 27 primary, although Coburn is viewed as a bigger threat to Humphreys’ chances of winning the nod.
Several other Republicans, including state Sen. Mike Fair and wealthy businesswoman Terry Neese, are also looking at the race.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Brad Carson faces only nominal opposition for his party’s nod after his most formidable potential primary opponent, state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, opted not to run.
But if Coburn does enter the race, the state’s ideological conservatives would likely rally behind him, setting up a potentially bitter showdown for Republicans.
“From Humphreys’ perspective, the toughest guy to deal with without question would be Coburn,” said a knowledgeable GOP source familiar with state politics who is supporting the former mayor. “I think primary-wise it would be a toss-up kind of election.”
Some conservatives, many of whom had hoped that Rep. Ernest Istook (R) would carry their banner in the Senate primary, now view Coburn as their last hope of being able to defeat Humphreys, who is a slightly more pragmatic conservative, in the primary. Others are upset that Humphreys appears to have been anointed by the establishment to succeed Nickels.
After appearing to be all but in the Senate race, Istook changed course abruptly last fall and took his name out of the mix.
Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, the influential anti-tax group, said he has been encouraging Coburn to enter the race.
“We look very favorably toward him running,” Moore said. “We’re doing everything we can to get him in.”
Also joining in the effort to get Coburn in the race is a Web site not affiliated with the former Congressman or the Club for Growth, www.draftcoburnforsenate.com. The site was set up by a registered Democrat earlier this month.
Moore said his organization, which has helped funnel millions of dollars to conservative, pro-business candidates in recent cycles, stands willing to raise as much money as needed for Coburn. The organization’s willingness to violate Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment,” by getting involved in GOP primaries has also caused heartburn for Republicans on occasion.
The GOP source supporting Humphreys conceded that in the end, a bitterly fought primary would only serve to weaken the party’s nominee.
“We don’t need that contest,” the source said. “The only person who benefits from it is Carson.”
Still, Coburn, who honored a term-limits pledge by retiring in 2000, said that if he does ultimately decide to run, it won’t be due to the urging of any outside interests. He also spoke highly of Humphreys, calling the former mayor “a very nice guy.”
“The point is you don’t get in the race because other people want you to, you get in because you want to,” Coburn said. “You still have to do what you think is right and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
After retiring from the House, Coburn, a family physician, returned to his medical practice. But more recently his own health has been the largest factor in the decision timeline.
Coburn, 55, battled colon cancer for most of last year, and only recently completed treatments and received a clean bill of health. He acknowledged that the Senate race even now is “not on the front burner for me” and that it would not be for several more days.
In the end, the GOP source said that ultimately Coburn will follow his heart.
“If he thinks that he’s called on to run, and the Lord wants him to run, then he’s going to run,” the source said. “There’s nothing that would stop him.”