THE IMPORTANCE OF KEEPING ERNEST
“You’re never going to believe this,” Mario Vargas Llosa told me last week, “but two weeks before the election, I had no idea he was a candidate.” The prize-winning Peruvian novelist, who lectured and signed books at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, was reminiscing with me about his 1990 bid for president of Peru-a race he was supposed to win easily. But the conservative Vargas Llosa found himself in a run-off and then beaten by a political newcomer who campaigned in a karate robe and whose views on most issues were unknown: Alberto Fujimori.
Events in Oklahoma following the retirement announcement of Republican Sen. Don Nickles two weeks ago have moved on as fast a pace as those in which Vargas Llosa was upset by Fujimori. On Wednesday, October 8, less than a week after four-termer Nickles announced his exit next year, Rep. Ernest Istook (R.-Okla.) sounded every bit a Senate candidate. Over lunch, stalwart conservative Istook (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 97%) shared with me a Wilson and Associates poll that showed him beating the other leading GOP Senate possibility, Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, by 42% to 17% among registered Republicans statewide. Istook, the survey showed, whipped Humphreys in Republican-rich Tulsa by 35% to 10% and demolished the mayor in their common hometown of Oklahoma City 53% to 32%. “[Wife] Judy and I are prayerfully proceeding,” was how Istook left the subject of whether he was running.
Two days later, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.) interrupted a fishing trip to telephone me and reveal he would not support fellow conservative Istook. While the two are friends and their voting records are nearly identical, Inhofe (lifetime ACU rating: 98%) said, he would discourage an Istook bid and endorse Humphreys because “Ernest is too valuable in the House and Democrats will make an issue of his giving up his seniority and influence [as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Treasury].” The senator recalled how longtime Democratic Representatives. Ed Edmondson (1952-72) and Jim Jones (1972-86) both lost Senate bids after Republicans made an issue over their sacrificing their House seniority on the altar of ambition. Inhofe also suggested that Nickles, too, would weigh in for Humphreys (he did).
Less than 48 hours after Inhofe’s call, Istook held a press conference to announce that, his promising polls notwithstanding, he would seek re-election rather than the open Senate seat. In his words, “It would be a win-win situation if there is a way to keep a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate without giving up my position in the House. The problem is that, at this time, nobody can be certain whether another Republican is both willing to make the race and able to win it. It is more than a year before the election and over nine months before filing for office. In that time, hopefully, a strong candidate might emerge who could build the necessary support among Oklahoma’s voters.” Translated, Istook was not going to line up with his state’s two senators behind Humphreys, whom only days before he seemed confident of dispatching in a primary contest.
When I caught up with Istook after Congress returned to Washington, I asked if Inhofe and Nickles had pressured him out of the race. “Nobody has leverage to pressure me,” the 4th District lawmaker replied. He added that by remaining in the House and on the powerful Appropriations Committee, he would “keep benefits for the state.” But he reiterated that he was not yet willing to endorse Humphreys or any of the other present GOP Senate hopefuls-state legislators Mike Fair and Jim Dunlap-and that the field would grow more crowded in the coming nine months. Along those lines, a recent listener poll by KTOK Radio in Oklahoma City showed that 29% of the respondents supported Humphreys for the Senate, while 47% preferred “another Republican.”
The tension-filled Republican primary has heightened the hopes of Sooner State Democrats that they might win a Senate race for the first time since 1990. Last week, two-term Rep. Brad Carson announced that he was leaving his 2nd District House seat to run for the Senate. A lawyer and former Pentagon staffer under Bill Clinton, the 36-year-old Carson is articulate, a Rhodes Scholar, and regarded as a moderate Democrat-not unlike fellow Democrat Brad Henry, who won the governorship last year in a stunning upset.
Betting is strong, however, that Carson will face at least one fellow heavyweight Democrat in a primary-either State Treasurer Robert Butkin or State Atty.Gen. Drew Edmondson, son of former Rep. and two-time Senate nominee Ed Edmondson and nephew of Democratic Gov. (1958-62) and Sen. (1962-64) J. Howard Edmondson.
Given the modern record of Republican successes in Oklahoma, as well as George W. Bush’s capture of its electoral votes by 22 percentage points, GOP retention of Nickles’ seat is likely. However, the prospect of bitter GOP infighting coupled with the fact that Democrats will almost certainly field a strong candidate for the Senate has raised concern among state and national Republican operatives.
With Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham becoming the first dropout from the Democratic presidential sweepstakes, betting is mounting that, at age 66, he will file for a fourth term in the Senate in 2004. As one veteran Republican activist in Palm Beach told me, “[Senate Democratic Leader] Tom Daschle has to be putting a lot of pressure on Graham because they both know that any other Democratic candidate, will more likely than not lose to any first-class Republican.” Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, more or less confirmed this when he told reporters that “I’d much prefer Bob Graham to any other candidate mentioned.”
For his part, Graham told the Orlando Sentinel he would make a decision “soon” and it would be based on “personal and family factors, as well as what I would see the next six years in the Senate being.” The filing deadline for the September primary is next May, so Graham has six months to make up his mind.
A further sign that Graham will run again came when Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd, who had long been poised for a Senate race, announced last week that he would seek re-election to his 2nd District House seat rather than wait for “the word” from the senator. Boyd (lifetime ACU rating: 32%), whose base in the district was diluted slightly by redistricting, faces a strong Republican challenge from State Rep. Bev Kilmer.
On the Republican side, Rep. Dave Weldon announced two weeks ago that he was ending his exploratory effort for the Senate and would instead seek a fifth term in the House. The 50-year-old Weldon (lifetime ACU rating: 94%), a physician and U.S. Army veteran, cited his recent appointment to the House Appropriations Committee as a key reason for passing on a statewide bid. Sources close to the physician-lawmaker say it is a near-certainty that he will endorse his good personal friend and fellow conservative, State Sen. Daniel Webster, who is actively campaigning for the Senate.
The other Republicans in the race are Florida House Speaker Johnny Byrd and former U.S. Rep. (1980-2000) and 2000 Senate nominee Bill McCollum. But, whatever Graham’s eventual decision, the attraction of a winnable Senate seat is likely to increase the ranks of Republican contenders. Last week, Jeffrey Saull of Vero Beach, multimillionaire office chair magnate and major donor to national Republican committees, said he might make the race himself since his favorite candidate, Rep. Mark Foley, decided not to run. And legal luminary Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, an irritant to politicians from Bill Clinton to Tom DeLay, said last week he intended to seek the Republican nomination as well.
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