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State Senataor Nancy Riley Defection Puts New Focus On State Senate

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Depending upon your political allegiance, Republican state Sen. Nancy Riley's defection to the Democratic Party is either a major setback to GOP hopes of taking control of the Senate or a minor blip that will be overcome by Republican strength in the fall elections.

Riley, complaining there is no room for political moderates in the Senate's Republican caucus, bolted on Thursday _ little more than a week after she got 23 percent of the vote in the July 25 Republican primary for lieutenant governor.

Riley, who spent only $40,000 on the race, came in last in a three-candidate field but still forced a runoff between front-runner Todd Hiett, speaker of the state House, and Sen. Scott Pruitt.

Riley's switch elevated the Democrats' slim control of the 48-member Senate to 26-22 going into the pivotal fall elections. Republicans have never controlled the Senate and took control of the state House in 2004 for the first time in more than 80 years.

The Sand Springs senator's actions also renewed attention on the race for lieutenant governor, who serves as president of the Senate and a tiebreaker if the Senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin is stepping down after three terms to run for the 5th Congressional District seat.

The party that controls the Senate can more easily adopt its policies and programs. And the lieutenant governor can turn the Senate in his party's favor in case of a 24-24 tie.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said speculation about an evenly divided Senate is wishful thinking by Republicans who he said will still be in the minority when the 2007 Legislature convenes in February.

``I think the lieutenant governor is going to keep cutting ribbons,'' Morgan said, referring to the largely ceremonial role played by the state's second highest officeholder.

He said Riley's political defection reflects growing dissatisfaction among moderate Republicans with what he said is ``the extremist ideology that has taken over the Republican Party.''

Riley's party switch heralds a strong Democratic year at the polls in which Democrat Gov. Brad Henry will be re-elected and other Democrats will be swept into office on Henry's coattails, Morgan said.

``I think a tie is highly unlikely. We're going to keep the majority,'' Morgan said.

The Senate's minority leader, Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said Riley's departure from the GOP caucus makes a Republican win in the lieutenant governor's election more critical than ever.

``The odds are we're going to pick up seats. The question is how many,'' Coffee said.

Coffee said he believes Republicans will win some of the seven seats held by term-limited Democrats and that Democratic challengers do not pose a serious threat to incumbent Republicans.

Republicans were encouraged by the outcome of the most recent election for a Senate seat. Mike Schulz, an Altus Republican, was elected in a special election in May, defeating Robbie Kerr, D-Altus, widow of veteran Democratic Sen. Robert M. Kerr, who died in January after a long fight with cancer.

``We've got to work hard. But I think we have a great chance of being in the majority. We're taking nothing for granted,'' Coffee said.

Riley, a former teacher, is in the middle of her second four-year term in the Senate and does not face re-election this year. She was re-elected in 2004 with more than 66 percent of the vote.

Candidates in the highly competitive lieutenant governor's race reflect their party's point of view about the political impact of Riley's conversion.

``I think it makes it more difficult to have a tie,'' said Rep. Jari Askins, D-Duncan, who will face former congressional aide Pete Regan of Afton in the Aug. 22 runoff for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Republicans needed just one seat to force a tie vote before Riley switched. Now they need two to force a tie and three to win majority status.

``It's much more difficult for them to win two of the races,'' Askins said.

Regan agreed.

``I think we're going to hang on,'' he said. ``I think this will provide a real momentum boost for all Democrats.''

Republican candidates for lieutenant governor said the winner will be more of a policymaker than at any point in state history thanks to the office's tiebreaking duties in the Senate.

``From the very beginning I've believed the office was going to matter,'' said Pruitt, who is giving up his Broken Arrow Senate seat after just two terms.

``I have believed since entering the race that this position was going to be instrumental,'' Pruitt said. ``This may help people to ratchet up the race from an attention standpoint.''

Hiett, a term-limited lawmaker from Kellyville, said a tie is more likely now that Riley is a Democrat.

``The lieutenant governor's race will be a higher stakes race from this point forward than it has been,'' Hiett said.

The speculation is mere gamesmanship designed to put parties and their candidates in the best light, said Neva Hill, a Republican strategist in Oklahoma City and publisher of The Hill Report, a political newsletter.

``It's positioning to raise money more effectively,'' Hill said. ``It's like any party switch. No matter when it comes, both parties are going to spin it.''

Hill said the effect of Riley's political decision on the makeup of the Senate will not be known until the last votes are counted this fall.

``You have to wait until the end of the game on this one. There are just too many seats open,'' she said.
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