Fight For Senate Already Under Way

Sunday, July 15th 2007, 6:14 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The 2008 general election is still more than 14 months away, but Republicans and Democrats already are making moves to gain sole control of the 48-member body, the only tied legislative chamber in the country.

Unless Democrats come up with a major effort to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the fight for the U.S. Senate could be the highlight of the 2008 elections.

Republicans are predicting they will become the majority body in the Senate for the first time in state history. They only need to pick up one seat to make it an all-GOP Legislature. The House was captured by Republicans in 2004.

Last week, the GOP signaled the start of their Senate campaign with a fundraiser at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City that also honored Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City.

Republicans raised about $125,000 to get a head start in the battle for the Senate, according to Randy Swanson, who is heading up the GOP effort.

Under a power-sharing agreement between Democrats and Republicans, Coffee is reigning as Senate President Pro Tem for the month of July.

Coffee is designated as co-president pro tem under the agreement, while Sen. Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, retains the title of pro tem. Under the state Constitution, there can be only one pro tem of the Senate.

Twenty-four Senate posts are up for grabs in 2008, but only five are open seats because of term limits. Two of the term-limited senators are Democrats -- Morgan and Jeff Rabon of Hugo -- and three are Republicans.

All the open GOP posts are in Republican areas. Term-limited Republicans are Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Oklahoma City; Owen Laughlin, R-Woodward, and James Williamson, R-Tulsa.

Rabon's post is in Democratic territory, but a pitched fight is expected for the Stillwater seat.

Republicans are expected to make a determined effort to unseat
Sen. Nancy Riley, D-Tulsa, who switched parties, allowing Democrats
to retain at least a tie with Republicans in the Senate with 24
members apiece.

Ivan Holmes, new Democratic state chairman, says one of his top priorities will be to recruit the best candidates available.

"I'm going to find pillars in the community," he said. "I will promise you we will be better organized at the grassroots level than we've ever been."

He said fight for Riley's seat could be crucial. "I know Republicans think they can beat her but I believe we can win that one. She is a good candidate."

Some strategists say Democrats may have to upend an incumbent Republican or two to realize their wishes.

The presidential race could be a factor, depending on who gets the nominations, Holmes said. Holmes, 69, said the Democratic presidential field is "the strongest in my lifetime," while Republicans are troubled by President Bush's sinking popularity.

The thinking is not that a Democrat can win Oklahoma -- which hasn't happened since 1964 -- but that the GOP nominee will not have coattails that will help local candidates.

Civil lawsuit legislation is expected to be a top issue in the Legislature next year and will be an issue both parties will take advantage of to raise campaign funds. A bill changing how civil lawsuits are handled passed the Legislature this year, but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.

Another issue that will be back is so-called workers' compensation reform, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling that overturned a portion of a law dealing with medical evidence. The court ruled as unconstitutional a provision that does not allow a workers' comp judge to consider recommendations of an injured worker's personal doctor.

Republicans say they will address the court ruling by trying to change the law to make it constitutional.

But Holmes praised the decision as helping working people and said the GOP will be going against the people's will if they try to deny a personal doctor being able to present evidence.

"I will stand in every town square holding press conferences to remind voters of Oklahoma that Republicans refuse to provide answers to the daily struggles of Oklahomans" in such areas as health care, housing, education and jobs, he said.

Williamson, co-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said changing the civil justice system, commonly called tort reform, is a key ingredient to attracting jobs to the state, along with reducing work comp costs.

Coffee said he thinks Republicans "will do very good" in the state Senate races, although "we have to wait and see who all the candidates are."

"If I were a betting man, I would bet on the Republicans," he said.