Debate: Is Coburn Better for the GOP?

Posted February 25, 2004 at 6:33pm

With former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) set to announce whether he will enter the Oklahoma Senate race on Monday, there is one intriguing question swirling in Republican circles: Could Coburn, contrary to conventional wisdom, actually be the party’s strongest nominee?

Some Republicans — albeit many who aren’t wholeheartedly embracing the candidacy of former Oklahoma City mayor and current GOP frontrunner Kirk Humphreys — believe there is a strong case to be made for Coburn.

They argue that if he gets in and wins the primary, he would be well-positioned to go head to head with Rep. Brad Carson, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Coburn and Carson share the same base in eastern Oklahoma, an area of the state that is largely rural and populated with conservative Democrats.

Adhering to a term-limits pledge, Coburn retired in 2000 and returned to his medical practice. Carson was elected to succeed him in the 2nd district.

“You have to look at where is that swing vote? It’s out in the rural areas,” said one GOP strategist in the state. “A doctor from Muskogee … because he was a Congressman and because the people in that district know him, he’s more apt to start out with a stronger general election position.”

The strategist added that in the state’s 2002 governor’s race, former Rep. Steve Largent (R) held the Republican base but ultimately lost the contest because he wasn’t able to convert enough rural Democratic votes.

Coburn’s “got a lot of loyal rural Democrats who will support him,” the source added.

Republican strategists acknowledge that if Coburn enters the race, a fierce primary showdown will likely ensue.

A spokesman for the Humphreys campaign, meanwhile, said the former mayor would welcome the contest.

“We’ve said all along that a primary is a good thing,” spokesman Rick Buchanan said. “Quite frankly, the focus has been on our efforts, not on our opponents.”

Buchanan said Humphreys is building a broad-based statewide campaign, and he noted that the former mayor has visited more than half of the counties in the state in four months of campaigning. “We just have a great deal of momentum,” he said.

An independent poll released earlier this month found Carson leading Humphreys by 11 points in a hypothetical matchup.

Humphreys has the backing of much of the state’s GOP political establishment and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), perhaps the state’s most prominent conservative, is chairing his campaign.

Still, there has been some grumbling among conservatives who are not entirely convinced of Humphreys’ conservative bonafides.

Last week, state Rep. Wayne Pettigrew (R) got out of the Senate primary and endorsed Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony (R) because he believes Humphreys isn’t capable of beating Carson.

“Basically, the emperor has no clothes and someone needs to finally say that,” Pettigrew said in exiting the race. “I think there’s room in the race for other candidates.”

Anthony, who is expected to run an anti-establishment, outsider campaign, is well-known in the state but viewed as unlikely to gain enough traction to win the primary.

Pettigrew had previously said he would not run if Coburn entered the race, leading some Republicans in the state to speculate that the former Congressman may be set to announce he won’t run. Still, there is little concrete evidence one way or the other to suggest what Coburn’s decision will be.

“We’re still waiting to hear what his final decision will be, and we don’t have an indication one way or another what that’s going to be,” said a Washington, D.C.-based Republican operative.

Coburn has told a supporter who started a Web site aimed at drafting the “citizen legislator” into the race that he will announce his decision on March 1 on the Web site,

“Dr. Coburn is seeking clear direction in regard to his candidacy, and he requests that each of you pray that God’s will be made clear to him,” draft Coburn movement leader David Chapuis wrote on the Web site earlier this month. “Furthermore, due to the importance of this decision to Dr. Coburn, he also requests that you send this letter to 20 other people who would join the Draft Coburn for Senate movement and pray for him.”