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.