BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
After battling uber-conservatives throughout the 2012 legislative session, Oklahoma’s Powers-That-Be aren’t taking any chances in Tuesday’s Republican primary.
With more than a dozen of their most reliable House and Senate allies facing stiff challenges from the Tea Party right, deep-pocketed corporatists opened the financial floodgates in an all-out quest to protect the status quo.
As a result, a dozen or more races are emerging as political laboratories, of sorts, that could help answer – at this moment, in this state, at least – an age-old question:
Which is more salient in winning campaigns – money or manpower?
The social-religious conservatives seeking to knock off the GOP incumbents can’t compete with the financial firepower behind such groups as the Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future [$300,000 war chest – see details below].
At the same time, it’s also true that primary elections often generate meager turnouts, giving the most rabid voters – can you spell T-e-a P-a-r-t-i-e-r-s? – out-size influence.
It’s hard to believe some of the Legislature’s biggest names could be deposed … in their own primary … by a small but rabid fringe that considers them to be RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] …
But it wouldn’t be shocking, for this reason: Big money interests writing big checks haven’t always fared well in past efforts to knock out uber-conservative incumbents [one example: Rep. Mike Reynolds] that failed to show proper deference to the corporatist agenda.
Will the corporatists reign supreme? Or will the Tea Party kick into high gear? Here are 10 legislative races worth watching for clues:
District 41 [Edmond area]
Incumbent Clark Jolley vs Paul Blair
Jolley, Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, is rightwing Republican to his in-grown toenails, but his 100% pro-life rating and support of income tax cuts isn’t sufficient for Blair, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher and former OSU and Chicago Bear lineman. This race may be the nastiest in the state – with Jolley accused of an ethics violation and Blair of operating three companies that violated state tax laws.
District 39 [Tulsa]
Incumbent Brian Crain vs. Kevin McDugle
Crain, chairman of the Senate Human Services Committee, endorsed Gov. Mary Fallin’s plan to cut the state income tax and authored the toxic life-begins-at-fertilization measure known as Personhood. These are not sufficiently conservative credentials for McDugle, a Marine veteran endorsed by America’s foremost government hater, Grover Norquist.
District 37 [Tulsa]
Incumbent Dan Newberry vs Mark Croucher
Newberry, chair of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, is an arch-conservative who authored the bill that would require doctors to give women seeking an abortion the opportunity to hear the fetal heartbeat. His opponent, Croucher, is even farther right, railing against ObamaCare and Sharia Law and supporting the open-carry of weapons without a license.
District 39 [Edmond]
Marian Cooksey vs Bob Dani
Cooksey, seeking her fourth term, is assistant GOP House whip and vice-chair of the Appropriations and Budget subcommittee on Public Health and Social Services. Her opponent, Dani, is a Sooner Tea Party activist who helped found the ultra-conservative High Noon Club that meets regularly at an OKC gun range.
District 79 [Tulsa]
Incumbent Weldon Watson vs Lois Jacobs
Watson, a former TV newsman, a retired ONEOK executive and one of the Legislature’s nicest members, is chair of the House Republican Caucus – all the evidence uber-conservatives need that he is a betrayer of true conservatism. Jacobs is a dental anesthesiologist who’s had a tumultuous term on the Tulsa Board of Education.
District 68 [Tulsa]
Incumbent Glen Mulready vs Darren Gantz
Mulready, a former health insurance executive, is tarred by uber-conservatives for his role in the Legislature’s ill-fated attempt to set up a health insurance exchange under the President’s Affordable Care Act. Gantz, an insurance agent, stresses his opposition to ObamaCare, pounds the anti-abortion pulpit and lambasts Mulready for taking campaign money from Tulsa oilman-banker-philanthropist and – gasp!—“Obama bundler” George Kaiser whom he refers to as “Mr. Solyndra himself.”
District 100 [Oklahoma City]
Incumbent Elise Hall vs Jeff Renner
First-termer Hall toes the fundamentalist line on social issues like abortion and is a reliable corporatist vote. She backed legislation that would have ended collective bargaining for municipal employees – a position that evidently didn’t set well with Renner, a retired OKC firefighter. Hall is uber-right, yet it was Renner who claimed the endorsement of the grass-roots Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee [OCPAC]. Go figure.
District 25 [Ada]
Incumbent Todd Thomsen vs Donald Cole Gallup
The far-right considers Thomsen a liberal, blasting him for his mediocre scores on the Oklahoma Constitution’s Conservative Index. Yet Gallup failed to win the endorsement of OCPAC. So why is this race on our list of 10 to watch? Because there is evidence [follow the money!] that the status quo crowd is worried about Thomsen’s prospects. They’ve targeted his race for some serious financial help.
District 82 [Oklahoma City]
Incumbent Guy Liebmann vs Mike Turner
Liebmann, chair of the Appropriations and Budget subcommittee on General Government and Transportation Committee is another reliable corporatist vote, but epitomizes the RINO pejorative favored by the ultra-right. Turner, described as a business investor and inventor consultant, is running a grass-roots campaign that won’t accept PAC money. He was endorsed by the OCPAC.
Interestingly, at today’s Political Junkies luncheon in OKC, GOP pollster/consultant Pat McFerron described Liebmann as “the most vulnerable incumbent out there” – not only because Turner has the money to self-finance [and support other uber-rightists], but also because 30% of Liebmann’s redistricted district is new to him and only about 15% of the district is in the OKC Council ward he previous represented.
District 60 [El Reno/Yukon]
This is an open seat, thanks to redistricting. The current representative, Democrat Purcy Walker of Elk City, is term-limited, so the district boundaries were moved closer to the higher-growth metro OKC area. It bears watching, though, at yet another test of uber-conservative strength.
The primary battle features Dan Fisher, a Yukon Baptist minister who regularly attends High Noon Club meetings, and Matt White, the El Reno mayor who owns a construction consulting business.
It’s a sign of just how far right Oklahoma politics has lurched that incumbent Sens. Jolley and Crain and Reps. Cooksey and Mulready – ultra-conservatives, all – would be viewed as moderates or liberals by the party’s crackpot caucus.
It’s also a sign of just how serious the state’s 1% is taking these challenges that they’re writing big checks in support of these incumbents.
All you need to do is look at the Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future reports on file at the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
Here’s who’s bankrolling the group:
Chesapeake Energy, $50,000
Chickasaw Nation, $50,000
Rooney Holdings, $50,000 [two checks of $25,000]
Williams Companies, $50,000
Clayton Bennett [Oklahoma City Thunder owner], $25,000
Continental Resources, $25,000
Here’s the list of where the independent expenditures are going:
June 18, Brian Crain [design, print, mail], $4583.30
June 18, Brian Crain [voter mailing and calling list], $400
June 18, Brian Crain [district-wide radio buy], $15,000
June 15, Clark Jolley [sample survey], $2,800
June 15, Brian Crain [design, print, mail], $4,583.30
June 14, TV media [Senate District 41], $90,000
June 7, Friends of Todd Thomsen [mail piece design, print, mail], $3,375
June 7, Glen Mulready [mail piece design, print, mail], $3,060
June 5, Elise Hall [design, print, mail] $2,964.42
June 5, Brian Crain [design, print, mail], $4,583.30
June 4, Elise Hall [design, print, mail], 2,964.42
May 24, Brian Crain [radio buy], $11,000
May 23, Brian Crain [radio buy], $11,000
May 23, Marian Cooksey [design and printing services], $2,505.10
May 9, polling [Senate District 41], $4,400
May 9, polling [House District 68], $4,250
May 9, polling [Senate District 39], $3,600
May 8, Marian Cooksey [design, print, mail], $2,505.12
How much drama will we have Tuesday night? Stay tuned.
– Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer. For more coverage of the 2012 primary, see One Lump Or Two? – GOP’s Nightmare Primary on the cover of the June 25 Oklahoma Observer.