OKLAHOMA CITY — In Oklahoma’s Second Congressional District, the retirement of a popular Democratic incumbent has set off a race among 10 candidates, including three Democrats and an independent.
At least from the perspective of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, the race has appeared rather quiet, perhaps even slow and somnolent.
That seems likely to change as the primary race for both major parties enters a final, two week sprint. Despite an overwhelming registration advantage for Democrats, the district is a conservative bastion that twice previously elected Republicans (former U.S. Rep. Wes Watkins and current U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn).
There are a total of six candidates in the Republican primary race. The man spending the most money is Markwayne Mullin of Westville, owner of a plumbing business in Broken Arrow.
Mullin’s candidacy is under scrutiny in wake of news stories in The Tulsa World and the Claremore Daily Progress.
The World’s Randy Krehbiel reports Mullin “has become the subject of a high-profile whisper campaign concerning the 2009 arrest and conviction of an employee on federal gun charges.”
In both the blogosphere and among election watchers, there is widespread speculation as to whether or not Mullin was ever – or could in the future be – legally scrutinized for his ties to Timothy Lee Saylor, a Mullin Plumbing employee arrested in February 2009 for a wide range of federal firearms offenses.
After nearly a year of legal maneuvering, Saylor pleaded guilty to one count of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition illegally. Several months later, he began to serve a two-year federal prison sentence.
The World’s Krehbiel reported Mullin said Saylor did not face normal company background checks because he had entered Mullin’s business after purchase of another firm.
A local police investigative affidavit in 2009 raised questions about Mullin’s ties to Saylor. Mullin has dismissed the sourcing of that document as arising from a disgruntled former employee.
Investigation 781065-09-0077 by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) pointed to an apparent “straw purchase” of one shotgun found in Saylor’s possession. One witness, the Daily Progress reported, said Mullin fit the description of the purchaser. Violations of federal firearms laws are subject to a five-year statute of limitations.
Local police did not investigate the straw purchase, nor did they investigate Mullin giving a convicted felon access to firearms. A Broken Arrow police officer concluded it was “reasonable” to believe Mullin would not have known Saylor was a felon.
The district’s conservatism has led varied analysts to peg it as a potential Republican pick-up, yet the Democratic registration advantage tempers such analysis. The “straw purchase” issue could emerge as divisive, even as Republicans nationally pursue investigations of the “Fast and Furious” controversy touching U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. This week, the U.S. House began contempt proceedings against Holder, saying he has not cooperated with congressional investigations of the gun-running scandal.
Mullin has faced strong criticisms from his Republican opponents in the aftermath of an ambivalent Federal Election Commission deadlock on whether or not ubiquitous advertising for his business (and a weekly radio program) amounted to illegal corporate contributions for his congressional run.
Each one of the half-dozen hopefuls in the Grand Old Party’s primary is running as multi-issue economic and social conservative, and ardent critics of President Barack Obama. The contest has thus far been less contentious than might have been expected, yet the last two weeks are expected to prove more divisive.
A debate slated for Okmulgee Tuesday night could begin to highlight differences among the Republicans. The joust among the six hopefuls is set for the Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee student center at 7 p.m.
In addition to Mullin, Republican hopefuls include state Rep. George Faught of Muskogee, a current state representative, and former state Rep. Wayne Pettigrew of McAlester, a native of eastern Oklahoma who served at the state Capitol representing an Edmond district in the 1990s.
Faught, who has hundreds of precinct-level volunteers, and Mullin appear to be competing for a spot in the August 28 runoff; however, Pettigrew is campaigning hard and could fashion a surge into the second round.
Marc Nuttle, a national analyst based in Norman, told CapitolBeatOK that, as a veteran of Paul Weyrich’s national conservative organizing efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, he has been impressed with Faught’s modeling the classic New Right “Kasten Plan” (named for former U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten of Wisconsin). In terms of precinct organization, Nuttle reflected, “The integrity of personal contact is often paramount in races like this.” Nuttle contends that massive media expenditures, while effective in most cases, may not be so in a sprawling rural district with relatively small numbers of Republicans.
Former Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Brenda Reneau, a Fort Gibson native, praised Pettigrew in comments to CapitolBeatOK, while stressing she is not involved in the race and is not making an endorsement. She said as a legislator Pettigrew “took his work seriously and represented that district well. He was more than a great representative – he was a person of integrity, professional at all times. It was a pleasure to work with him during my tenure.” Commissioner Reneau served 12 years, as the first woman and first Republican to win the Labor job via election.
Both Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel from Claremore, and Dustin Rowe, an attorney and former mayor of Tishomingo, have demonstrated organizational ability and have drawn support.
Rounding out the GOP field is Dwayne Thompson, a pastor from Fort Gibson.
In wake of the rise of James Lankford in the Fifth Congressional District in 2010, few analysts are willing to count anyone out in Oklahoma’s competitive Republican primaries. Lankford, a former youth camp director, began as the darkest of dark horses, but surged to primary, runoff and general election victories after impressive performances in debates.
Three Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination on June 26.
Businessman Wayne Herriman of Muskogee and retired teacher Earl Everett of Fort Gibson are both in the race. Rob Wallace of Fort Gibson, a former district attorney and assistant U.S. Attorney, is the third hopeful and may be the frontrunner in his party.
In the primary, Wallace has the backing of former Governor Brad Henry.
Echoing departing incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Boren of Muskogee, Wallace and Herriman have declined to support President Barack Obama’s reelection, while Everett has backed the incumbent.
Regardless of the two major party nominees, independent candidate Michael Fulks will be waiting in November.
About the author: Patrick B. McGuigan, an award-winning journalist with more than three decades of experience in news reporting, policy analysis, and commentary. McGuigan is also senior editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper, and capitol editor for Tulsa Today, an online news service. He contributes regularly to Perspective, the monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt research organization. Previously, he was managing editor of The City Sentinel and contributing editor for Tulsa Today.