It is not difficult to find something to get excited about this primary season in Oklahoma.
With a major state question in play, a logjam of candidates in the gubernatorial primaries, numerous state House and Senate seat openings and remnants of political tension from the April teacher walkout underscoring it all, intrigue is not lacking this election cycle.
Bill Shapard, founder of the statewide pollster SoonerPoll, said he expects voter turnout to be about the same for Republicans during the Tuesday primaries. Participation among Democrats, however, will likely increase, driven by their unfavorable view of Gov. Mary Fallin.
Shapard also expects to see an increase in Independent and casual voters driven to the polls by State Question 788, which would legalize marijuana for medical use in Oklahoma.
“I think there will be more turnout when it comes to 788,” Shapard said, “but I think it will be less about young people and more about lapse voters coming out of the woodwork who are more casual voters where not a lot has driven them to the polls before.”
The state Legislature approved a bill last legislative session that raises teacher pay by more than $6,000 per year. Shapard said the pay raise bill was not viewed as favorable by most Oklahomans, either because they believe it did not go far enough or they disagree with raising taxes to do so. An incumbent candidate’s decision to endorse or oppose that compromise legislation might have an impact on their standings with some voters.
“I’m not necessarily sure that it will have any profound impact on the Democrat side,” Shapard said. “On the Republican side of the ballot, however, I do believe there is a small minority that are very unhappy with that particular decision, even though it is not the majority of Republican voters.”
Shapard believes an appetite for change and a wealth of competitive races could lead to a few surprises after votes have been tallied.
“I think there will be some incumbents who will lose,” he said.
There is no race in the state right now with more voter intrigue than the gubernatorial one, particularly in the crowded Republican field.
Fallin was first elected in 2010, but term limits will end her eight-year run as governor in January. There are 10 candidates vying to succeed her as the Republican nominee. With such a crowded bunch, Shapard said it appears unlikely that any candidate will earn more than 51 percent of the vote, which is required to secure a spot on the November general ballot.
“There is a fight for those top two spots,” he said, “because there will definitely be a runoff.”
If a runoff is needed, the vote will be held Aug. 28.
The field of Republican gubernatorial candidates include businessman Christopher Barnett, former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, former state representative Dan Fisher, U.S. Air Force veteran and teacher Eric Foutch, nurse Barry Gowdy, state auditor and former Oklahoma Republican Party chairman Gary Jones, Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb, attorney Gary Richardson, school counselor Blake “Cowboy” Stephens and businessman Kevin Stitt.
Shapard characterizes the Republican primary as a land war between the top three SoonerPoll candidates: Oklahoma City’s Cornett, Tulsa-based Stitt and Lamb, who has established himself as a favorite in the state’s rural areas.
There are two candidates on the Democratic side: former attorney general Drew Edmondson and former state senator Constance Johnson. This is also the first year Oklahoma has had a Libertarian gubernatorial primary. Their candidates are businessman Joseph “Joe Exotic” Maldonado, business consultant Rex Lawhorn and Oklahoma City Police Department employee Chris Powell.
While polling numbers indicate it is likely that state voters will continue sending Republicans to Washington, D.C., for its five U.S. Congress seats, Shapard expects a more competitive gubernatorial race than in November 2014, when incumbent Fallin defeated Democratic candidate Joe Dorman by nearly 15 percentage points.
There might be no more hotly contested primary than the race for Republican attorney general nominee.
Incumbent Mike Hunter and challenger Gentner Drummond have exchanged negative television ads questioning the other’s capacity for office. In May, Hunter’s campaign began airing ads against Drummond, calling him “uncaring,” “unethical” and “unfit” to hold the position.
The other Republican challenger, Angela Bonilla, has mostly stayed out of the fray.
Hunter was appointed to the seat in February 2017 by Fallin after Scott Pruitt was selected by President Donald Trump to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Hunter is running a campaign in favor of preserving state sovereignty and prosecuting those who perpetuate the opioid addiction crisis.
The Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) political action committee recently spent $400,000 on an ad campaign supporting Hunter.
Drummond is a Tulsa-based lawyer and former Air Force captain who participated in the Gulf War. According to his campaign website, Drummond is committed to “upholding the rule of law, protecting our Constitutional rights and serving the people of Oklahoma, not the political elite.”
Drummond loaned his own campaign $405,000 in response to the RAGA commercials supporting Hunter.
Bonilla is an Okmulgee-based public defender who lists her campaign priorities as defending Oklahoma agencies from litigation, protecting children from sexual predators and protecting civil rights.
The only Democratic candidate is Oklahoma City area independent attorney Mark Myles.
Perhaps the most circumstantially unique primary matchup is the race for the Republican state labor commissioner nomination.
Candidate Cathy Costello is the widow of former labor commissioner Mark Costello, who was killed by his son, Christian Costello, after a dispute August 2015 in a Braum’s parking lot. Cathy is a former teacher and businesswoman. Her main goals are to improve workplace safety, promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education as a means of bolstering the state workforce and making up for losses in workplace productivity due to untreated mental illness. Costello has been a national advocate for mental health reform since the death of her husband.
Leslie Osborn is a former state representative from Oklahoma’s District 47 who once acted as the House appropriations and budget first female chair. She was removed from the role last year by House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, after publicly disagreeing with the speaker’s assertion that the state Department of Human Resources owed voters an explanation for cutting $30 million in services due to lack of funding. On her campaign site, Osborn also asserts that she is an advocate for building a more educated and qualified state workforce.
Costello has approached her candidacy against Osborn with some aggression, dedicating an entire section of her campaign website to the differences between the two, labeling Osborn as a “liberal.”
Keith Swinton is also running in the Republican primary. He is a Norman-based engineer and businessman who has founded three companies: Hidden Lake Products, Ref-Works and S&H Recording Studios. He has said that, if elected, he would focus on enforcing current public policy.
The Democratic primary pits Fred Dorrell, an employee of Tulsa-based Spirit AeroSystems, against engineer Sam A. Mis-soum. Brandt Dismukes is running as an Independent candidate.
Incumbent Melissa McLawhorn Houston, who was appointed labor commissioner after Costello’s death, is not seeking re-election.