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SOUTHWEST: Open-Seat Oklahoma Senate Race Has Grown Wilder and More Unpredictable in Recent Weeks

ARIZONA
Senate
Incumbent: John McCain (R)
3rd term (69 percent)
Outlook: Safe Republican

McCain, perhaps the most popular politician in America, faces math teacher Stu Starky (D) in the general election.

Starky is an energetic candidate with no chance. State Democrats are more focused on trying to unseat Sen. Jon Kyl (R) in 2006.

House
1st district
Incumbent: Rick Renzi (R)
1st term (49 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

After winning with 49 percent in the newly created 1st district in 2002, Renzi immediately was placed atop Democratic hit lists.

State and national Democrats cleared the field for former Flagstaff Mayor Paul Babbitt (D) in this race, as they believed a late and divisive primary had cost them the seat in 2002.

Despite setting this race up on a tee for Babbitt, he has yet to turn in the kind of performance many had expected of him.

By all accounts, Babbitt is a lukewarm campaigner — at best — and he has performed only passably on the fundraising front ($344,000 on hand as of Aug. 18).

Democrats insist that candidate quality is not a huge factor in this race because the size of the district makes it almost impossible to run a grassroots campaign.

The northeastern Arizona district, which was created by a bipartisan redistricting commission in 2001, is larger in size than the state of Pennsylvania.

Democrats believe that Babbitt’s last name (his brother, Bruce, was the state’s governor) is political gold and will pay off at the ballot box.

Renzi has done little to distinguish himself in his first term after winning just 49 percent in 2002. But he has proved to be a strong fundraiser, showing $703,000 on hand on Aug. 18.

Polls show Renzi with a lead.

In a poll done for Babbitt’s campaign in mid-September, Renzi led 46 percent to 37 percent. A Northern Arizona University survey in the field at roughly the same time showed Renzi with a 51 percent to 40 percent lead.

This race is by no means over, but Renzi is in a much better spot than anyone expected with just a month before the election.

NEW MEXICO
House
1st district
Incumbent: Heather Wilson (R)
4th term (55 percent)
Outlook: Leans Republican

Wilson is a perennial Democratic target in this swing Albuquerque-based district, but she always seems to overcome the obstacles, regardless of the circumstances.

She is a hard worker and a tenacious fundraiser who projects a moderate, family-friendly image despite politics that put her to the right of most of her constituents. On top of that, she is an Air Force veteran, and that plays well in a district with a strong military presence.

Through June 30, Wilson had a whopping $1.2 million in the bank after raising almost $2 million in the cycle.

The Democrats, who have thrown a variety of different candidates at Wilson, are hoping the second time is the charm for state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero, who took just 45 percent of the vote against the Congresswoman in 2002.

By most accounts, Romero is running a savvier campaign this time around, and his fundraising, while nowhere near Wilson’s, has been far more solid. He had $321,000 in the bank on June 30.

Romero also may be helped by the huge get-out-the-vote operation that Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is putting together for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Both candidates have been on the air for weeks, and polls have shown that the race is close. But unless Romero and the Democrats figure out how to deliver a knockout blow, Wilson should survive again.

2nd district
Incumbent: Steve Pearce (R)
1st term (56 percent)
Outlook: Likely Republican

Pearce won an easier-than-expected open-seat contest in 2002 and essentially never stopped running. He has racked up huge fundraising numbers and has brought an array of GOP celebrities to the sprawling southern New Mexico district to help his cause.

National Democrats at one time had high hopes for their candidate, former state Rep. Gary King, the son of popular former three-term Gov. Bruce King (D). But the younger King ran a surprisingly quiet campaign until recently. Polls show Pearce with a healthy lead.

Through June 30, Pearce had $956,000 in the bank; King, who had to fend off a primary challenge earlier that month, had just $124,000.

Both parties are paying so much attention to New Mexico this fall that the House election remains fluid. But Pearce, who has committed no discernible missteps in his first term, seems to be in a solid position.

OKLAHOMA
Senate
Open seat: Don Nickles (R) is retiring
Outlook: Tossup

The race between Rep. Brad Carson (D) and former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) remains one of the highest profile and most unpredictable of the cycle.

The state’s Republican establishment initially backed former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, but by the time the July primary took place, Humphreys’ campaign had collapsed and Coburn won the three-way contest with 61 percent of the vote.

Carson, meanwhile, had a fairly clear shot at the Democratic nomination and he has lived up to his billing as the party’s best open-seat candidate.

While even Republicans privately admit that Carson has run a near-flawless race, it remains to be seen whether even a perfect campaign can put him over the top in this heavily Republican state.

The Democrats’ strategy is to make the race about Coburn, painting the former lawmaker and family physician as an extreme ideologue who falls far outside the mainstream conservative views of the state.

But Coburn, who has had a bumpy road since his primary win, still has a populist appeal that reaches across party lines.

While in the House, Coburn compiled a conservative voting record but often found himself at odds with the GOP leadership.

His primary victory was aided by an endorsement from the conservative, anti-tax Club for Growth and the group appears willing to pull out all the stops to help elect him this fall.

It appears this race will be won or lost in the Democratic-leaning eastern part of the state, a base that both men have represented in Congress. Carson must tally large vote totals in the area to have any chance of winning statewide.

Carson also will look to make inroads in the rural farming community in the western portion of the state by highlighting Coburn’s opposition to the farm bill.

Coburn, who has spent recent weeks defending himself against charges that he sterilized a then-20-year-old woman without her written consent 14 years ago, will make every attempt to tie Carson to liberals in Washington, D.C.

Recent polls have shown Carson with a slight edge, but well within the surveys’ margins of error.

Both national parties are expected to spend heavily in this relatively cheap state, and this race remains a pure tossup a month before Election Day.

House
2nd district
Open seat: Brad Carson (D) is running for Senate
Outlook: Safe Democratic

State Rep. Dan Boren (D) won a July primary and is on his way to becoming the newest member of the Sooner State delegation next year.

Boren, son of former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.), will be a third-generation Member.

His father served in the Senate from 1979 to 1994. Dan Boren’s grandfather, the late Rep. Lyle Boren (D), represented portions of what is now the 2nd district when he served in the House from 1937 to 1947.

Boren, 31, was elected to the state House in 2002, defeating an eight-year incumbent.

He defeated former state District Attorney Kalyn Free in the primary, taking 58 percent of the vote. He faces horse breeder Wayland Smalley in November, but he is a virtual lock to succeed Carson in this largely Democratic district.

TEXAS
House
1st district
Incumbent: Max Sandlin (D)
4th term (56 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

Sandlin is in stronger shape today than he was six months ago in his race against former District Judge Louie Gohmert (R), but because of the district demographics this seat remains a major pickup opportunity for Republicans.

One of five Texas Democrats severely endangered by a Republican-led redistricting plan, Sandlin seems to have picked himself up off the political canvas where he found himself in the aftermath of the redraw.

Sandlin’s fundraising has improved dramatically as he netted $727,000 at the end of June. Gohmert was well behind at that time with $372,000 in the bank.

Sandlin’s campaign operatives have been shopping around a poll done for him by Bennett, Petts & Blumenthal in early September that showed him leading Gohmert 47 percent to 43 percent. In May, a Gohmert poll showed the Republican with a 44 percent to 41 percent edge.

Though even Republicans acknowledge that Sandlin has outhustled Gohmert over the past few months, they believe the decided GOP tilt of the district will deliver them a victory.

The eastern Texas 1st district includes less than half of the population of Sandlin’s former seat and has added Smith and Gregg counties, both of which are strongly Republican.

In 2002, statewide Republicans averaged 63 percent of the vote in the district.

Adding to the Republican case is the fact that Gohmert showed an ability to turn out his base in Smith County, the most populous in the new district, during his primary and runoff races.

In his runoff victory, Gohmert won 77 percent in Smith, a vote total that made up 65 percent of all the ballots cast for him; he carried only three of the district’s 12 counties.

This race has moved in the Democrat’s direction over the summer. That said, Gohmert is likely to benefit from a huge victory by President Bush at the top of the ticket, and given the seat’s Republican tendencies that could provide him with the winning margin he needs.

2nd district
Incumbent: Nick Lampson (D)
4th term (59 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

Of the five Texas races targeted by both parties, the matchup between Lampson and former Judge Ted Poe (R) has drawn the least attention to this point.

Poe won a crowded March primary with more than 60 percent, avoiding a runoff and strengthening his hand for the general election against Lampson. But in the months since, Poe has failed to capitalize on the momentum provided by his primary win.

The general election looks to be shaping up as a battle between Lampson’s base in Jefferson County, which includes the city of Beaumont, and Poe’s base in Harris County — in the suburbs of Houston.

Lampson has used his base in Beaumont to easily hold the 9th district since winning it from Rep. Steve Stockman (R) in 1996.

He flexed his political muscle in the area during his unopposed primary victory when 79 percent of all his votes came from Jefferson County.

Even in a May poll done for the Poe campaign that showed Lampson down 16 points, he led Poe 60 percent to 23 percent in Jefferson County.

Poe appears to have a similarly reliable base in Harris County where he was a judge for 22 years, making a name for himself with headline-grabbing punishments for criminal offenders.

In Poe’s primary victory, 90 percent of his votes came from Harris County, which includes Houston.

Because roughly 53 percent of the population is in Harris County, Lampson must make inroads there to win. That means he will have to take to expensive airwaves.

At the end of June, Lampson was in a much stronger financial position than Poe with $807,000 on hand to the challenger’s $336,000 in the bank.

9th district
Open seat: Chris Bell (D) was defeated in primary
Outlook: Safe Democratic

Former Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green will be the new Congressman from the 9th district after soundly defeating Bell in a March Democratic primary.

Green faces Arlette Molina (R) in the general election but is a heavy favorite in this strongly Democratic, Houston-area district.

10th district
New seat: Created in redistricting
Outlook: Safe Republican

Former Deputy Attorney General Mike McCaul (R) is the first Congressman in this new seat, which was drawn to elect a Republican in the GOP-led redistricting plan of 2003.

Using personal money and the political connections of his father-in-law, Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays, McCaul won an April runoff over free-spending businessman Ben Streusand (R).

Democrats did not even field a candidate in this Republican district, which stretches from Houston in the east to Austin in the west.

11th district
New seat: Created in redistricting
Outlook: Safe Republican

Accountant Mike Conaway (R) cruised to a March primary win in a seat that was created for him by Republican state legislators and will likely have an even easier time winning the district outright this fall.

Conaway took 75 percent in his primary, a race that came only nine months after he lost a special election runoff to now-Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) in the nearby 19th district.

Teacher Wayne Raasch is the Democrat.

17th district
Incumbent: Chet Edwards (D)
7th term (52 percent)
Outlook: Leans Democratic

Always the most difficult of the five targeted Texas races for Republicans to win, Edwards has solidified his position in the new 17th district and opened up a clear edge over state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R).

Edwards is seen as the strongest campaigner among the endangered Texas Democrats and has a strong base in McClennan County, which includes the city of Waco, the population center of the new district.

Wohlgemuth currently holds a state House district in Johnson County in Dallas’ southern suburbs.

The fight between the two is likely to come down to who can win Brazos County, the second largest county in the district and the one in which neither candidate has a base.

Brazos includes Texas A&M University, and both candidates have been quick to highlight their ties to the Aggies. Edwards has run ads informing voters that he graduated from A&M, and Wohlgemuth is a proud member of the A&M parents’ organization.

To this point, the fundraising battle has been lopsided. Edwards had $1.2 million on hand at the end of June; Wohlgemuth showed $405,000 in the bank at that time.

Edwards has pressed his early advantage in this race. While a Wohlgemuth win remains a possibility, Edwards is clearly in the best shape of the so-called “Texas Five.”

19th district
Member vs. Member: Charlie Stenholm (D) and Randy Neugebauer (R)
Outlook: Leans Republican

Neugebauer and Stenholm are locked in a struggle to prove which of the two is more conservative.

Stenholm, who was first elected to a West Texas Congressional seat in 1978, was the seventh most conservative Democrat in the House in 2003, according to National Journal’s vote ratings.

He even has run ads showing him with President Bush at the signing of the farm bill in 2002. The Republican National Committee has called on Stenholm to take the ads off the air, but he has refused.

Despite his conservative credentials, Stenholm faces unique challenges in this race that he never has run into before. First and foremost, he must run against a fellow incumbent.

Neugebauer won a 2003 special election to replace Rep. Larry Combest (R) but quickly found himself embroiled in one of two Member-versus-Member contests in the Lone Star State. Neugebauer has outraised Stenholm throughout the contest. He had $1.1 million in the bank on June 30 compared to Stenholm’s $739,000.

Neugebauer’s fundraising has been bolstered by Vice President Cheney and other GOP luminaries who have campaigned in the district on his behalf.

Neugebauer also won the coveted endorsement of the Texas Farm Bureau despite the fact that Stenholm is the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee and has won the group’s endorsement in previous elections.

The new 19th district, which takes in Abilene in its eastern portion and Lubbock in the west, also favors Neugebauer.

Roughly 50 percent of the district’s population was in his old district, while only 33 percent of the population of Stenholm’s old 17th district was included within the new lines. It also is overwhelmingly Republican, giving statewide GOPers an average of 69 percent of the vote in 2002.

Stenholm is perhaps the only Democrat who could make this a close race. Polling shows the two Members within single digits of one another, but all signs point to a Neugebauer victory.

24th district
New seat: Created in redistricting
Outlook: Safe Republican

State Rep. Kenny Marchant (R) is a huge favorite over computer programmer Gary Page (D) on Nov. 2.

After being denied a chance to run for Congress in 2002 when Rep. Pete Sessions (R) moved into the new Dallas-area 32nd district, Marchant got his chance less than two years later when state Republicans drew a seat that fit him like a glove. Marchant won 73 percent in a four-way primary and is cruising to Congress.

28th district
Open seat: Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) defeated in a primary
Outlook: Safe Democratic

In the most contentious Democratic primary of the cycle, former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar defeated Rodriguez in a March primary.

Competing in a new district that included his base in San Antonio as well as the city of Laredo to the south, Rodriguez appeared to win by 145 votes on primary night. A recount turned up hundreds more votes, however, which put Cuellar in the lead by 203. Numerous legal challenges and recounts later, Cuellar was declared the victor by 58 votes in mid-July.

He faces tax attorney Jim Hopson (R) this fall in a race that will not be close.

Rodriguez has pledged to run again in 2006. That contest should provide political fireworks rarely seen in south Texas.

32nd district
Member vs. Member: Martin Frost (D) and Pete Sessions (R)
Outlook: Leans Republican

The most high-profile House race in Texas — and perhaps the country — is this North Dallas contest between Frost and Sessions.

The two camps have sniped back and forth for months but have largely fought one another to a draw. Similarly, on the fundraising front, both Frost and Sessions have raised eye-popping totals likely to be more than enough to fuel their television and ground campaigns this fall.

At the end of June, Sessions was sitting on a whopping $2.6 million; Frost had $1.6 million in the bank at that time, but as a former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he is likely to benefit from an independent expenditure campaign by the organization.

On candidate skills alone, Frost is the more polished of the two. First elected to the 24th district in 1978, Frost has risen to near the top of the Democratic leadership, running the DCCC in the 1996 and 1998 cycles and even making a brief run for leader against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) following the 2002 elections.

Frost also was the architect of the 1990 and 2000 Texas redistricting maps that kept Democrats with a majority in the state’s Congressional delegation.

The latter plan was reversed by the Texas Legislature late last year; the new lines split Frost’s old territory into five seats, none of which was particularly advantageous for him.

He chose to run in the 32nd against Sessions, citing the district’s 40 percent minority population. Even so, the Republican nature of this district looks too difficult even for Frost to overcome. It would have given statewide Republican candidates an average of 64 percent in 2002 and contains many of the most well-to-do — and GOP-friendly — suburbs of Dallas.

Frost is sure to make this race close, but Sessions is running a textbook Republican campaign, which seems likely to yield success in this GOP-tilting seat.

— Chris Cillizza, Josh Kurtz and Lauren W. Whittington

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