OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The former director of a Tulsa space museum shocked a five-term congressman in a Republican primary by criticizing him as not conservative enough for Oklahoma and attacking a high absentee rate that the incumbent blamed on treatment for alcoholism and the death of a child.
Fueled by tea party support, Jim Bridenstine, 36, of Tulsa, said Sullivan’s votes during 10 years in Washington were no longer appropriate in a place considered the reddest of the red states after President Barack Obama failed to win a single county here in 2008.
“If you look across our country right now, well-established candidates are being beaten by newcomers because there is a thirst for fresh people that are willing to solve the nation’s problems and not just get re-elected,” Bridenstine told The Associated Press after his victory Tuesday. “It’s not just about Republicans and Democrats anymore, it’s about wasteful spending and about the reckless spending that’s been going on on both sides of the aisle.”
Bridenstine, a Navy pilot who promised to serve no more than three terms if elected in November, characterized Sullivan as a career politician who became out of touch with working-class Oklahomans as he voted for bailouts, debt ceiling increases and “government takeovers.”
Sullivan, 47, acknowledged voting for various policies as the nation struggled through an economic downturn but said he still considered himself the most conservative congressman in the state. In a statement Tuesday night, Sullivan accepted defeat and said he would work to turn Obama from office in the fall.
“I want to thank my team of volunteers, my staff and most of all my family,” Sullivan said. “Congratulations to Jim Bridenstine, I’m sure he is looking forward to the general election. I am sure he will do a fine job representing the people of the First District of Oklahoma.”
The candidates had been sparring for months. A radio debate earlier this month descended at times into a shouting match, and Bridenstine accused his opponent of lacking the courage to debate more. Sullivan responded that the congressional voting schedule left no room in his schedule; Bridenstine often criticized the incumbent’s absentee rate on votes.
In a series of advertisements and at debates, the challenger noted Sullivan had missed 9 percent of U.S. House votes since 2003, much higher than the average rate of 2.4 percent.
The congressman said Bridenstine’s attacks on his absenteeism included read-between-the-line attacks on his time at the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcoholism and his missing votes after the death of a child.
“It’s disappointing that he doesn’t just come out and say it,” Sullivan said three weeks ago as the campaign intensified. “People have been very loving and kind to me about this. If I could take things back in my life, I would.”
Sullivan’s daughter Ellen died two days after birth Feb. 5, 2003. Her twin brother survived. And in May 2009 Sullivan entered treatment for alcoholism and was away for a month.
Sullivan fired back at Bridenstine over his leadership of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, claiming that the museum was “nearly ruined” while Bridenstine served as its executive director. Bridenstine acknowledged that the museum took on losses under his leadership — nearly $383,000 in 2009 and 2010, according to tax forms — but maintains the red ink was justified because he was trying to attract a retired NASA shuttle for the facility.
Sullivan had a huge fundraising advantage over Bridenstine, having amassed more than $990,000 compared with $244,000 for Bridenstine. Of Sullivan’s contributions, about $576,000 came from political action committees, many with ties to the telecommunications and energy industries.
Some of Sullivan’s five opponents in a crowded Republican primary in 2010 brought up the issue of his treatment for alcoholism, as well as his votes for the government’s financial bailout, but he still easily cruised to a victory with 62 percent of the vote and avoided a runoff. He then captured nearly 77 percent of the vote in the general election.
A former member of the Oklahoma House, Sullivan was first elected to Congress in 2002 in a special election to replace Steve Largent, a professional football star who made an unsuccessful run for governor.
Bridenstine is expected to be a heavy favorite in the Nov. 6 general election against Democrat John Olson, the owner of a small business, and independent Craig Allen, an airline pilot. The seat has been in Republican hands since 1986.
Also Tuesday, the race for an open congressional seat will continue with Republican and Democratic primary runoffs Aug. 28.
Plumbing company owner Markwayne Mullin and two-term Muskogee state Rep. George Faught will meet in the GOP primary runoff, while former state and federal prosecutor Rob Wallace and the owner of a Muskogee seed company, Wayne Herriman, will meet in the Democratic runoff.
Rep. Dan Boren, the lone Democrat in Oklahoma’s congressional delegation, announced last year he wouldn’t seek re-election from the district that sprawls across 26 counties in eastern Oklahoma, bordering Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. An independent also will be in the November general election.
Republican U.S. Reps. Frank Lucas of Cheyenne and Tom Cole of Norman easily defeated primary challenges from Republicans to the right of them. Lucas will face Timothy Murray of Guthrie and independent William Sanders in November, and Cole will face Donna Bebo of Fletcher and independent R.J. Harris in the fall.
The November election lineup already was set in Oklahoma City’s 5th District because just one person from each party signed up, along with two independents.
In the only statewide election on the ballot, Republican Bob Anthony, the longest serving state elected official in Oklahoma, won another six-year term on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission over challenger Brooks Mitchell.