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Race Ratings: Boren’s Exit Makes for Tossup

It was supposed to be another sleepy election cycle in the Sooner State, where Republicans just inked into law a relatively noncontroversial new Congressional map that made only minor changes to the current House districts. But Rep. Dan Boren’s (D) surprise retirement announcement Tuesday kicks off the first competitive race in Oklahoma in almost a decade.

Boren’s seat is a great pickup opportunity for Republicans, and if the GOP can pick up this seat, they will control the entire seven-member Congressional delegation.

The new Congressional map mostly shifted around parts of counties in some of the state’s rural districts and suburban areas. Every House Member in the delegation — the four Republicans and Boren — signed off on the changes to their districts before the Legislature passed the map and Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed it into law
May 10.

1st District

Incumbent: John Sullivan (R)

5th term (77 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

Sullivan is about as safe as they come. He has won with a greater percentage of the vote every cycle since he was first elected in 2002 to succeed former Rep. Steve Largent (R) in a special election. The five-term Republican is looking at an easy re-election bid thanks to minor changes to his Tulsa-based district.

The 1st district ceded part of Rogers County, which includes conservative suburbs east of Tulsa, to the 2nd district. Democrats used to have a hold on this area when Rogers County’s most famous native son, entertainer Will Rogers, delivered his famous quote: “I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.” But that’s not the case any more — it’s heavily Republican territory.

Regardless, the loss of those parts of Rogers County probably won’t even make a dent in Sullivan’s increasingly large winning percentages.

2nd District

Open seat: Dan Boren (D)

is retiring

Rating: Tossup

Boren’s unexpected announcement that he would not seek another term creates a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans, who have long lusted after this eastern Oklahoma district but failed to find a good candidate in recent cycles.

On the national level, this district has been good to Republicans. In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the 2nd with 66 percent of the vote, and President George W. Bush won re-election there with 59 percent of the vote — big margins that rarely constitute a competitive seat, let alone one held by a Democrat.

But the area known as “Little Dixie” has a long history of voting for Democrats on the local level. In 2010, a terrible year for Democrats, Boren slipped by with a respectable 57 percent and several local Democratic state lawmakers won re-election.

However, Boren’s retirement drastically changes the race. Boren had not faced a top challenger here in several cycles, which is likely in no small part because of his friendship with Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. But now that it’s an open-seat race, much will depend on Republican recruitment efforts.

State Sen. Josh Brecheen (R) has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but his office did not return an email request seeking comment.

Several Democrats immediately expressed interest in the seat following Boren’s announcement. The most notable of the pack is former Rep. Brad Carson, who represented Boren’s district until his failed bid for Senate in 2004. Carson quickly announced Tuesday that he will seek his former seat. 

At least two other Democrats have been mentioned as possible candidates for the seat. State Sen. Jim Wilson challenged Boren in the Democratic primary in 2010, but he garnered only 24 percent of the vote. Wilson said in a statement that he was “surprised” by Boren’s announcement and that “it is premature to make a decision” about another bid.

State Sen. Kenneth Corn, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor last year, is also likely to run “no matter who else is in the race,” according to one of his aides.

The minimal alterations to the 2nd do not change the competitiveness of the district, which is known for its rural, working-class populations. The district acquired conservative parts of Rogers County in the north and more Democratic-leaning parts of Marshall County in the south from Cole’s district.

3rd District

Incumbent: Frank Lucas (R)

9th term (78 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

The 3rd district is the largest in the state, sprawling from the rural western panhandle all the way to the Oklahoma City suburbs. The mostly rural and agricultural area continues to lose population and had to take on even more territory under the new Congressional map.

The 3rd district picked up parts of Canadian County, which includes many of the suburbs and exurbs around Oklahoma City and contains some of the fastest-growing parts of the state. But most importantly for Lucas, this is all solidly GOP territory.

The 3rd district also picked up parts of Creek County, another Republican area, from the 1st district. One local politician referred to this area as “the West Virginia of Oklahoma politics” because of its poor local economy and the fact that, as a result, local politicians avoid taking this area on.

In any case, this is still the safest and most reliable Republican seat in the state — and that’s saying a lot for Oklahoma.

4th District

Incumbent: Tom Cole (R)

5th term (unopposed)

Rating: Safe Republican

The 4th exploded in population over the past decade, growing more quickly than any other Congressional district in the state. As a result, Cole shed parts of his district to three others under the new map: Marshall County to the 2nd district, parts of Canadian County to the 3rd district and parts of Cleveland County to the 5th district.

These areas are all heavily GOP territory, but it won’t change the competitiveness of Cole’s seat. All of his territory, new and old, is essentially the makeup of a safe Republican seat.

5th District

Incumbent: James Lankford (R)

1st term (63 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

This is also a safe Republican seat, even though it includes the largest metropolitan area in the state by population and geography: Oklahoma City.

Lankford came out of nowhere in the 2010 GOP primary to win the open seat previously held by now-Gov. Mary Fallin (R). Local political operatives say the former Christian Camp director will have no problem winning re-election in the primary or general election in 2012.

However, watch out for this district during the course of the next decade. As more Oklahoma City residents continue to move out to the suburbs and exurbs in the surrounding counties, the urban areas in that district are trending slightly Democratic. In addition, there are pockets of Democrats in neighboring Seminole County.

Republicans have a lock on this seat for now, but they will likely have to do a more significant redraw in 10 years to shore up the district’s GOP lean.