OKLAHOMA CITY — The race for the open congressional seat in eastern Oklahoma is the top political prize in next week’s general election for both state parties, but the top candidates in the race are downplaying party affiliation.
Republican Markwayne Mullin stresses his business experience as he tries to appeal to conservative Democrats, while Democrat Rob Wallace tries to distance himself from Washington Democrats and President Obama, who failed to win a single one of the district’s 26 counties in 2008. The two will be on the November ballot, along with independent Michael Fulks of Heavener.
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 margin, the district that stretches from the state’s borders with Kansas to Texas has grown increasingly conservative in recent years, even in the longtime “Little Dixie” Democratic stronghold in southeast Oklahoma. Obama barely topped 42 percent among Democratic primary voters in the district in March against little-known opposition.
“I would say this part of Oklahoma is as hostile to the generic Democratic brand as anyplace outside of Kentucky, West Virginia or Utah,” said Ken Hicks, a political science professor at Rogers State University in Claremore, which is located in the district.
Democrats in the district have long voted for Republicans at the top of the ticket, and then for Democrats further down ballot, but Hicks said he sees that dynamic changing.
“I think the period of split-level realignment is coming to an end,” he said. “Republicans at the state level have been able to yoke an increasingly urban and cosmopolitan national Democratic Party to the state Oklahoma Democrats.”
Current U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, watched his winning percentages dwindle over the last two election cycles, from 70 percent in 2008 to 57 percent in 2010, before announcing last year that he wouldn’t seek a fifth term.
For Wallace, a longtime state and federal prosecutor, those numbers make it important for him to distance himself from Obama and national Democrats and stress his willingness to disagree with those in his own party.
“What I’m prepared to do is go toe to toe with party leaders from both sides,” said Wallace, who declined to say he plans to vote for for president. “I’m prepared to go toe to toe with anybody I need to to make sure the interests of folks in eastern Oklahoma, folks who work for a living, are heard in Congress.
“How the race plays into some national scheme for what’s going to happen with control of the Congress is not that important to me. What’s important to me is making sure that eastern Oklahomans have a voice in Congress.”
But Mullin, a political neophyte who runs a statewide plumbing company, also downplays the significance of party affiliation as he tries to appeal to voters in the heavily Democratic district.
“I don’t see Republican or Democrat. What is important is that we get the right person in place,” said Mullin, who has vowed to serve no more than six years if he’s elected. “We have a lot of commonsense, hardworking people who live in our district who understand the value of the person over the party.
“It’s not so much Republicans winning the seat, it’s putting a representative in place that understands our values and will go up there and fight for us, not for getting re-elected.”
As for the independent in the race, Fulks too is shunning both parties.
“I am somebody who doesn’t go with labels,” said Fulks, who helps run online courses at Carl Albert State College in Poteau. “I can agree with some of what the Republican Party says and some of what the Democratic Party says, but I really reject the extremists in both parties that have pulled both parties so far apart.”
Mullin has a slight fundraising edge, having topped $1.3 million through the last reporting period, including a $255,000 personal loan to his campaign. But Wallace has kept pace, topping the $1 million mark, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Fulks hasn’t reported raising any money.
Mullin and Wallace will square off Monday at Rogers State University in Claremore for the only formal debate between the two in the race.