STILLWATER, Okla. — As the Oklahoma State Cowboys prepared to face the Texas A&M Aggies in Saturday’s homecoming game, an even bigger battle spilled onto the orange and black festooned campus here: the increasingly bitter fight for the state’s open Senate seat.
It’s not uncommon for rivals Rep. Brad Carson (D) and former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) to cross paths while zig-zagging the Sooner State, but this weekend’s meeting was atypical.
As the two men briefly stood just a few feet from one another in the lobby of the Wes Watkins International Center, no pleasantries were exchanged, no hands extended. Not even a nod of acknowledgement was offered.
The candidates’ exchange, or lack thereof, capped the most contentious week yet in the Oklahoma Senate race and exemplifies the level of tension and emotion here only two weeks before Election Day.
Watkins, a Democrat-turned-Republican former Congressman who represented portions of the eastern Oklahoma district that Carson now does, admitted this year’s contest to succeed retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R) has become one of the nastiest races he’s ever seen in the state.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Wes, I don’t want to go vote,’” Watkins said, decked out in an orange blazer and his finest cowboy paraphernalia as he shakes hands in front of the GOP’s tailgate before the game. “I think it depresses them.”
Saturday’s encounter at OSU followed a Friday full of political theatrics stemming from Carson’s recent launch of a harsh television ad.
The spot alleges that Coburn “sterilized an underage girl without her consent,” then committed Medicaid fraud “to get paid for the illegal procedure.”
“Sterilization. Medicaid Fraud. Coverup,” an announcer says as the ad closes. “Tom Coburn: Unfit To Be Our Senator.”
Nickles, who has held a fairly low profile role in the race after initially getting behind Coburn’s establishment-backed primary opponent in the GOP primary, held a press conference Friday morning in Tulsa to denounce the ad as “slanderous” and “a blatant attempt at character assassination.”
“I bet it hurts Congressman Carson more than it helps him,” he predicted.
The ad’s charges are based on a more than decade old malpractice suit brought against Coburn in which a then-20-year-old woman alleged that Coburn, a family physician and obstetrician, sterilized her during surgery for an ectopic pregnancy without first receiving her written consent. Coburn has repeatedly maintained that he had the woman’s oral consent for the procedure. The suit was later dropped.
Minutes after Nickles called for the ad’s removal from airwaves, Carson made his way to the same podium at the Tulsa Press Club to defend the spot — even as Coburn campaign aides paced in the back of the room, resisting the urge to go on the attack.
“Character matters. Integrity counts,” Carson said, arguing that the spot is based on Coburn’s own statements from depositions in the case. “Tom Coburn has consistently had to run away from embarrassing statements.”
His Own Worst Enemy
Carson continually hammers that same message home to audiences, arguing Coburn’s tendency to lob inflammatory comments makes him unworthy to represent the state.
At Carson’s second biennial Calf Fry in McAlester on Saturday night, he rallied the Democratic base by citing the litany of controversial comments Coburn has made.
He gave special attention to the latest of Coburn’s statements to grab headlines — that lesbianism is so rampant in southeastern Oklahoma that young school girls are only allowed to go to the bathroom by themselves. Coburn has said his words were taken out of context.
“We’ve got someone running for Congress for the U.S. Senate right now in Tom Coburn, who’s already made us a laughing stock all across not only the country but the whole globe,” Carson said, later promising the 1,000 or so faithful Democrats gathered that he’ll never embarrass them.
Carson’s strategy in a race where he must run 20 points ahead of his own party’s presidential nominee to win is clear. He must make Coburn the issue, painting him not as too conservative for the state, but as too extreme.
Coburn earned a reputation as a maverick during his three terms in the House, during which he was especially critical of GOP leaders when it came to spending.
“I’m bold and plain spoken,” Coburn admitted in an interview. “And if I was so way out there, that’s why the people in the most Democratic district in Oklahoma re-elected me twice, because I was so way out there. The fact is I care deeply about Oklahoma. I care about their values and I’ve represented Oklahoma well when I was in Washington and I will do so again.”
At a Coburn fundraiser featuring Nickles and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) on Friday in Tulsa, Gene Womble, an 80-year-old former Republican precinct captain, admitted that Coburn’s comments have no doubt impacted the race.
“He’s made some dumb statements,” Womble acknowledged, citing specifically his characterization of the race as one of good versus evil. “I’m sure it cost him votes.”
Still, Womble said that ultimately, the conservative voters of the state will pick the doctor and former lawmaker when they go to the polls Nov. 2.
“I think Coburn comes closer to meeting what the standard Oklahoman wants up there,” he said.
The ‘L’ Word
As often as Carson talks about character, integrity and his opponent’s fitness for office, Republicans are spending equal time trying to highlight what they say is the single greatest impediment in Carson’s attempt to win the Senate seat. He’s a liberal.
In fact, the description is so damning in this conservative state that when vandals targeted Carson’s Tulsa campaign headquarters two weeks ago, they chose to spray paint that word over any other demeaning vulgarity.
“I’ve got one of the most conservative voting records” among Democrats in the House, Carson stressed at his own tailgate before the OSU game Saturday. “But you’d never know it.”
Television ads and mail pieces now show Carson’s likeness along with those of Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.).
“The reason Brad’s ahead today is because they don’t know the true Brad Carson,” Coburn argued. “His voting record does not represent the values of Oklahoma.”
A Vote for Ted Kennedy?
It isn’t enough, however, for Republicans and Coburn to just brand Carson as a liberal — they must also convey to voters what’s at stake in this election.
“The issue of keeping control of the Senate will be decisive for a huge number of undecided voters,” predicted Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) before heading into the OSU game. “That is going to get a lot of emphasis in the last 10 days in particular. I think that is an issue that cuts through the clutter and the smear campaign.”
Nickles, who introduced Coburn to voters as his “successor” as the pair worked the homecoming crowd, predicted a Carson triumph would mean dire circumstances for the state, country and the world as he seeks to emphasize the importance of the Oklahoma race.
“Brad Carson is a vote for Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton to run the Senate,” Nickles told the fundraiser crowd. “If we don’t win this seat, we won’t be in control of the Senate. It’s that important. I don’t know if people realize how significant this is.”
‘How Somebody Campaigns Is Exactly How They’ll Govern’
The differences between the two candidates even apply to their attitude toward campaigning.
“I never enjoyed campaigns. Why would anybody enjoy this?” Coburn said after the fundraiser. “There is an enjoyable part of it and that’s meeting all of the wonderful people in Oklahoma. But, no, it is not enjoyable to have nothing but negatives thrown at you, well, since the first week in August.”
Carson embraces all aspects of campaigning and smiled slyly as he discussed the state of the current fight.
“This is the highlight of the campaign” because “we got them screaming,” he said of the Republican response to the latest ad, which included a protest organized outside his headquarters, just in time for Friday rush hour.
“To see them sweat is worth the price of admission,” he later added.
Coburn tells the audience at the fundraiser that he’s weathering the attacks well.
“I serve a wonderful God. He keeps his promises. My spirit is strong,” he said. “It is good to walk the valley of the shadow of death in being attacked because what it does is send me back to the Creator. And it is a great experience for me to go through this because it corrects my direction of what’s really important in life.”
And, Coburn feels confident that voters will see through Carson’s attacks.
“How somebody campaigns is exactly how they’ll govern,” Coburn argued. “And if they will speak half truths all the time then they will do that when they represent us in Washington.”
A Dead Even Race
Polls consistently show either candidate with a 1- to 3-point lead, but always within the margin of error.
McAlester, where Carson held the Calf Fry, is considered the heart of the area of Oklahoma called “Little Dixie.” Less than an hour after the event begins, all of the signature delicacy (fried calf testicles, otherwise known as “calf fries”) is gone.
It is the most Democratic portion of the state, and Carson will have to win big here to offset heavy losses in other regions.
“This is the heart of Democrat country, I know,” he told the crowd Saturday. “There are so many good Democrats here. But Republicans are making inroads every day and there are a lot of folks who are registered with our party who haven’t voted for us in a long time.”
He knows he will also have to pick off other conservative-leaning independent voters like Sharlene Stewart and her husband, Jeff.
The couple spent several minutes quizzing Carson about his positions on issues such as Social Security, raising the minimum wage and a proposed state lottery. The couple, who said they were undecided before meeting Carson on Saturday, seem satisfied with what they heard.
“I think that when I go to the polls and I vote I’m going to vote for President Bush and I’m going to vote for Carson,” she said, double checking with her husband that she’s got the Congressman’s name right. “He seems like he’s for the things that the people of Oklahoma are for.”
“Coburn, I just think he’s a little too shady for me,” her husband added.
Seeking to stoke his base and play to the GOP’s partisan advantage in the state, Coburn will campaign with Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson, an icon among religious conservatives, later this week. Former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) are also scheduled to make appearances on behalf of Coburn, who will no doubt be seen often with Nickles and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in the final push before the election.
Even many Republicans privately admit that Carson has run a good campaign to this point. But that may not be enough.
Asked whether he’s ever frustrated by the prospect that he could run an almost flawless race and still lose, Carson put the best face on the prospect.
“I don’t find it frustrating, I find it empowering,” he said.
Coburn sees a different battleground, one that is neither ideological or geographic.
“The truth is the battleground,” he said when asked where this race will be won or lost. “That’s the truth. That’s what at risk, whether Oklahomans can really see through the clutter and see the real values of the individuals.”
And he has little doubt about the ultimate outcome. “We’re going to win because we’re right.”