Politics 2005: Week of October 3

The Importance of Being Ernest (in Oklahoma)

The latest veteran Republican House member to decide there is life beyond a safe district and clout in Washington is Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook. Although the seven-term lawmaker from Oklahoma City would not tell me what “major announcement” he is to make October 3, it is taken for granted throughout the Sooner State that Istook will become a candidate for governor next year.

“Oklahoma should have a Republican governor,” stalwart conservative (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 94%) Istook told me, recalling the freakish election in ’02 that unexpectedly put Democratic state Sen. Brad Henry in the statehouse. Republican Rep. (1994-2002) and former Seattle Seahawks football great Steve Largent appeared to be the runaway favorite to take the governorship. An article in the last issue of HUMAN EVENTS before the November election, in fact, discussed Largent as a potential presidential candidate if he secured his expected win in Oklahoma.

But it was not to be. Largent ran what most of the state’s pundits and pols later described as a lackluster campaign, never showcasing his attractive family (as Henry did) and never calling for campaign assistance from the fellow Republicans who polls showed were the most popular politicians in the state: outgoing Gov. (1994-2002) Frank Keating, then-Sen. (1980-2004) Don Nickles, and then-Rep. (1994-2002) J.C. Watts.

Particularly devastating to Largent was the renegade candidacy of fellow Republican Gary Richardson, a wealthy lawyer-businessman who spent $2 million of his own money on an independent campaign that focused in large part on anti-Largent broadsides. One Richardson TV spot, for example, showed footage of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and reminded voters Largent was on a hunting trip the day of the attack. The same spot showed Largent being pressed by a reporter about his absence and responding with an expletive.

Richardson drew 14% of the vote and Largent and Henry about 43% of the ballots each. The Democrat became governor because he had a wafer-thin lead of 7,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast. Because of a combination of unusual circumstances, Henry—little known outside his hometown of Shawnee and not an announced candidate until June of that year—found himself governor at age 39. In a state where Republican Keating had handily won the two previous races for governor and where the ’04 vote percentages for John Kerry (34%) and the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee (41%) were unimpressive, Democrat Henry seemed almost incongruous in the statehouse.

Henry appears to be popular with voters. A recent Wilson Research poll shows the governor with a favorable rating of 64% statewide, compared to only 25% rating him unfavorably. However, when matched against Istook in the same survey, Henry leads by an unimpressive 44% to 36%. Istook, who has never run statewide, surprisingly runs ahead of the governor in three of Oklahoma’s five congressional districts, according to Wilson Research.

To be sure, there are other Republicans aside from Istook now eyeing the gubernatorial race for governor: Todd Hiett, the first Republican speaker of the state House since the 1920s; former state Energy Secretary Bob Sullivan; and Richardson, the spoiler for the GOP in ’02, who now hints he will run for the Republican nomination in ’06. But the Wilson Research survey shows all running at least 20 percentage points statewide behind Henry.

A lawyer and former radio newsman, Istook spent six years in the state legislature before going to Congress in 1992. Istook was, as the Almanac of American Politics put it, “in his views and attitudes a forerunner of the Republican freshmen of 1994.” Having chaired two subcommittees of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, the Oklahoman is rather unusual in that he has never used the positions to bring home pork. He has also been one of the congressional quarterbacks promoting school prayer legislation.

Henry, most pundits agree, gets high approval ratings from voters because he rarely takes controversial stands. Last year, for example, he refused to say whether he supported or opposed a statewide initiative to raise gasoline taxes. (The measure was overwhelmingly defeated, 72% to 18%. ) If Oklahomans are willing to turn to a candidate who embraces controversial positions without hesitation, the race will be one of the more interesting gubernatorial bouts of ’06.

After Istook

Like so many of the historically Republican districts that will be open in ’06, Istook’s 5th District (Oklahoma City) is almost certain to have a crowded, hard-fought GOP primary to determine his probable successor in Congress. Although the district actually has more registered Democrats than Republicans, it has been in GOP hands since 1974, when Democratic Rep. (1956-74) John Jarman barely staved off defeat and then switched to the Republican Party.

With Istook’s exit, the early favorite appears to be GOP Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, the first woman in Oklahoma history to hold its second-highest statewide office. A close associate of former Gov. Keating (“Frank Keating in a skirt” to her critics), the conservative Fallin passed on a race for governor herself and has long been rumored to be eyeing the 5th District if Istook moves up or out.

Another possible candidate who also has ties to the still-popular Keating is Keating’s son-in-law Ryan Leonard, an Oklahoma City lawyer whose father is a federal judge and former state legislator. Leonard also considered the U.S. House race last year when Istook briefly pondered a bid for U.S. senator.

Other possible GOP candidates include State Corporation Commission members Jeff Cloud and Denise Bode (who turned in a poor showing as the ’02 nominee for attorney general), and state Rep. Kevin Calvey.

When I asked Istook about potential successors, he replied: “I will not endorse anyone.”

Tancredo for Gilchrist

In a surprise move, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.) came out strongly for a candidate in the upcoming special U.S. House election in California who is not a Republican. Shortly before he came to HUMAN EVENTS for an editorial meeting, the Colorado lawmaker, who is considered the most vigorous opponent of illegal immigration in Congress, cut a hard-hitting TV commercial on behalf of Jim Gilchrist, leader of the Minutemen who patrol the Mexican border and report on foreigners trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Gilchrist is seeking the nomination of the American Independent Party in the special election in the Golden State October 4.

With Republican Rep. (1988-2005) Christopher Cox leaving the 48th District (Orange County) to become chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the two leading Republican candidates to replace him are conservative state Sen. John Campbell and liberal former Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer. Under state election law, the candidates will all appear on the same ballot October 4, with the top vote-getters in each party, major and minor, squaring off in a subsequent election.  Thus, the eventual GOP and Democratic nominees, plus Gilchrist, are likely to meet later in October.

Tancredo broke party lines to back Gilchrist because,  he told us, “The issue of illegal immigration is worth it. Jim Gilchrist is strong on the issue and none of the Republicans are.”

As to whether he is undercutting his own party, the Colorado lawmaker assured us he was not. “Jim is a good Republican, is strongly pro-life, but couldn’t run for the Republican nomination because of state law,” said Tancredo. California law allows someone to compete for the nomination of a party only if he or she has been a member of the party for at least a year. Gilchrist changed his registration, explained Tancredo, too late to qualify for the GOP nomination fight. But, Tancredo assured us, “Jim has told me he will caucus with Republicans in Congress and vote for a Republican for speaker.”