By Aaron Blake - 07/27/06 12:00 AM EDT
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett didn’t declare for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District race until May and didn’t move into full campaign mode until this month.
But the popular former sportscaster qualified for a runoff with Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin in Tuesday’s GOP primary, and now he’ll have a month to make up some ground and try to continue his fast rise in Oklahoma politics.
Fallin and Cornett emerged from a six-way nomination race as the top two vote-getters Tuesday, and they will meet in the runoff Aug. 22 to determine the favorite to replace Republican Rep. Ernest Istook.
Fallin finished first, with 35 percent of the vote, and Cornett edged out third-place finisher and state Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode 24-19 to earn the second spot in the runoff. The winner will face Dr. David Hunter, who won the Democratic primary 63-37 over teacher Bert Smith.
The seat is generally not considered a takeover opportunity for Democrats. Istook, who is running for governor and won his primary Tuesday, routinely won two-thirds of the vote in the district. He will face Gov. Brad Henry (D) in the general election.
The Republican congressional match-up pits the longtime favorite in the race, Fallin, against the candidate whose entry assured she would face a runoff. Before Cornett joined, Fallin had been polling around 50 percent and higher.
Keith Gaddie, a professor of political science at Oklahoma University who has polled the race independently, has been doing second-choice polling in recent weeks and said most of Bode’s voters chose Fallin in a runoff. Fallin is the early favorite and would take about 60 percent of the vote if the runoff were held today, according to his numbers.
While the campaign has been downright amiable until this past weekend, Gaddie said that should change quickly and Cornett will have to go negative on Fallin somehow, which is difficult to do in Oklahoma politics.
“Now we have an actual campaign,” Gaddie said.
He said the two remaining candidates will have to mobilize their bases and try to grab the hardcore conservatives who voted for further-right candidates like Bode as well as the Club for Growth- and Minuteman Project-endorsed state Rep. Kevin Calvey, who finished fourth with 10 percent of the vote.
Gaddie added that Cornett might struggle in that regard because he doesn’t appeal as much as Fallin to traditional conservatives and older voters, who tend to dominate primary voting. And Cornett could be hurt by past support for increasing taxes and for a measure urging Congress to vote against restricting local governments’ powers of eminent domain.
In an interview with The Hill yesterday, Fallin acknowledged that such issues constitute differences between the two candidates. Until now, they had been content to cast themselves as ideologically similar. She also emphasized Cornett’s relative newcomer status and the fact that he has not yet served a full term in any office.
Cornett, who worked in television for 20 years, was elected as a city councilman in 2001 and won a special election to become mayor in 2004. He elected to a full term four months ago with 87 percent of the vote, and two months later he declared for Istook’s seat.
Fallin, meanwhile, has been in her office since 1995 and said she has been much more involved in the Republican Party.
“I’ve always been with the Republican caucus when it come to cutting taxes and working towards things that would make more efficient government and reform government,” Fallin said. “He’s come out against some things like the sales tax holiday, and that’s been one of the issues that we felt we needed some relief on.”
Cornett should perform better in debates because of his background in television and would have a good shot to win if he can outspend Fallin, Gaddie said.
Cornett raised $173,000 in the first two months of his campaign and had $119,000 on hand through July 5. Fallin raised $859,000 and had $316,000 on hand.
The mayor has been bolstered recently by news that an Oklahoma City group is buying the Seattle SuperSonics franchise in the National Basketball Association. Cornett was instrumental in getting the New Orleans Hornets to play in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina displaced the team last season, and the sale of the SuperSonics has led to speculation that the team will soon move to Oklahoma’s capital.
Cornett has cautioned against assuming the team will move, but the news put him in the spotlight less than a week before the primary. Calls to his campaign seeking comment were not returned.
The race could also be colored by an investigation into potentially illegal prerecorded telephone messages attacking Fallin and Bode that were placed earlier this week.
State Attorney General Drew Edmondson issued a release Tuesday saying the calls might have broken the law because they didn’t give recipients a contact phone number for the organization placing them, Americans for Job Security, which is based in Alexandria, Va. The release said the calls might violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and could lead to action in criminal or civil court.
Americans for Job Security is nonprofit issue-advocacy group and is exempt from the TCPA. Reached by The Hill yesterday, President Michael Dubke said the attorney general’s office told him it was not investigating his organization but instead making sure one of the other candidates wasn’t behind the calls.
Dubke said the attorney general’s office told him one of the candidates had done prerecorded calls incorrectly in the past, and he got the impression the office was making sure that candidate wasn’t responsible for the calls.
Dubke said only Americans for Job Security paid for the calls.
The attorney general’s office did not return a call by press time.