FORT GIBSON (AP) — Democrats Tom and Sonya Hunt walked out of their voting precinct last week with sour looks on their faces.
They had just cast ballots in the runoff election between former prosecutor Rob Wallace and seed company owner Wayne Herriman to decide who’d advance to take on the Republican challenger for Oklahoma’s 2nd District.
Both campaigns had turned downright nasty in the weeks leading up to the vote, and that sentiment rubbed off on residents in this eastern Oklahoma district, where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1.
“All you heard is, ‘That one’s a blank blank, and the other man was a blank blank,’” said Tom Hunt, 71.
Sonya Hunt, 68, echoed her husband’s frustration: “I didn’t like either one, truthfully.”
Wallace emerged victorious to face Republican Markwayne Mullin, a plumbing company owner who survived a knock-down runoff of his own, in the November election. Independent Michael Fulks also will be on the ballot.
Mullin, a political newcomer, now has roughly eight weeks to find enough disaffected Democratic voters like the Hunts in the vast 2nd District, which has only sent one Republican congressman to Washington since the 1920s.
“History is on our side,” said Wallace campaign manager Kyle Gott, who noted that U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, who’s held the seat since 2004, comfortably won the past two elections with 70 percent and nearly 60 percent of the vote. Boren announced his retirement last year.
But the working-class district, which spans 26 counties to take in suburban areas east of Tulsa and portions of the Ouachita Mountains, has grown increasingly conservative in the past decade, enough so that President Barack Obama failed to win any county in the district in the 2008 election.
“Just because the area is heavily laced with Democratic individuals who carry the card, that doesn’t mean they are Obama Democrats,” Mullin said in an interview last week. “Most people are registered Democrat because that’s the only way to get a vote here.
“For the most part, voters in our district have selected the right people,” he said.
Outside eastern Oklahoma, many Democrats in District 2 would be considered Republicans — they are pro-life, pro-gun, blue-collar and don’t care for big government. Mullin is hoping to capitalize on those sentiments to win over the so-called Blue Dogs.
“It’s not like we have a divided difference like the national party does,” said Mullin, who used a near-$1 million campaign fund to pay for advertisements that painted himself as a political outsider in the primary election. “We just need to get out there and show people something different.
“The worst thing to happen to (the Democratic party) is this president. We’re not just electing Clinton vs. Bush, we’re electing the future of our country,” he said.
Wallace has been endorsed by some of the state’s most popular Democrats, including former Gov. Brad Henry, former Attorney General Drew Edmondson and University of Oklahoma President David Boren, the incumbent’s father who also served as governor and as a U.S. senator.
Wallace is also taking his message to working class voters in the district, where the median income is around $35,000.
“There are way too many people in the House of Representatives who can reach into their pocket and pull out a quarter of a million dollars to fund their campaigns,” said Wallace, also taking a subtle jab at Mullin’s loaning himself nearly $280,000 to fund his campaign. “People in this district are struggling to make ends meet.
“Voters are tired of the label ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican.’ What they’re interested in is what’s right and wrong, not what’s right or left,” he said in an interview last week.
Both candidates will have to combat voter apathy as well — turnout for the runoff election last week was a low 16 percent. The district has about 408,000 registered voters and roughly 65,000 voted in the major-party contests.
University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie said it is possible a Republican could put together a string of votes to capture the seat this election cycle — especially with national party money that will most assuredly be pumped into the race in the coming weeks — but any victory would come with one major disclaimer.
“Here’s the thing: the Republicans can take that seat, but to hold it, the Republicans are going to have to moderate, or they’ll get beat,” Gaddie said. “You can’t take some of these straight party votes.”