Near-record voter turnout expected Tuesday

Friday, October 29th 2004, 5:17 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A near-record turnout is forecast when Oklahomans go to the polls Tuesday to decide a nationally watched Senate race and state questions on gambling, smoking and gay marriage.

President Bush is a heavy favorite over Democrat John Kerry. Oklahoma has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.

The Senate race matches Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Carson and his predecessor, Republican Tom Coburn.

The contest is threatening records for campaign spending and also is widely considered the nastiest statewide race in modern political history in Oklahoma.

Other reasons for predictions of a heavy turnout include a battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of the Legislature and a series of emotionally charged state questions.

Gov. Brad Henry was leading the charge for passage of a state lottery, a plan to allow pari-mutuel horse race tracks to have electronic games and a proposal to raise the cigarette tax to pay for expanded health care.

``I'm officially saying that between 1.3 and 1.4 million voters will turn out, said Mike Clingman, state Election Board secretary. He said he would be surprised if the turnout breaks the record of about 1.4 million set in 1992.

Coburn and Carson are trying to replace Republican Don Nickles, who is retiring after 24 years in the Senate.

The outcome could decide who controls the Senate during next year's congressional session.

Both candidates hit the campaign trail in buses last week to rally their supporters.

Coburn, 56, predicted ``we're going to win this election'' at the start of a bus tour in Oklahoma City. He was joined by Nickles and other GOP congressmen from Oklahoma.

The Muskogee doctor has emphasized his commitment to cut spending and ease the financial woes of the Social Security and Medicare systems.

Carson, 37, has vowed to press for Oklahoma's fair share of federal funding, saying the 2nd Congressional District suffered for funding under Coburn.

Carson planned a get-out-the-vote rally in Oklahoma City on Sunday after hosting a tailgate party in Stillwater with former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and former Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones. The two ex-coaches are backing the Claremore Democrat.

The most recent contribution reports showed Carson had raised and spent about $4 million on the race so far, twice that of his opponent.

Coburn, however, appeared to be getting the biggest benefit from third-party expenditures during the final days of the campaign.

Carson complained that two Oklahoma City oil executives were trying to ``buy the election'' for Coburn by contributing more than $1 million for a negative ad blitz against him in the final day of the campaign.

Coburn accused Carson of violating his own pledged to stop negative campaigning with a series of radio ads.

Party officials say when all is said and done, total expenditures on the race will top $10 million and could hit $15 million, which would easily be a record for an Oklahoma race.

In 2002, Henry, Republican Steve Largent and Independent Gary Richardson spent about $9 million in the governor's contest which Henry won.

Polls show the strong support for the Henry-backed lottery plan, State Question 705, and a companion measure supporters say will protect proceeds for education.

Opponents include church leaders and the Oklahomans for Good Government organization headed by former Rep. Forrest Claunch, R-Midwest City. Claunch led a successful effort to defeat a lottery plan in 1994.

Claunch's organization also opposes State Question 712, which would allow horse race tracks to have the same electronic gaming devices that Indian casinos now have. The plan creates a new revenue stream for schools and is backed by education organizations. Henry says thousands of jobs are at stake because race tracks will close without additional revenue.

Most of the opposition to the gambling proposals is on moral grounds.

State Question 713, which would raise the tobacco tax by a net of 55 cents a pack, also contains proposals to cut capital gains taxes, to give a tax break to retirees and to permanently lower the maximum income tax from 7 percent to 6.65 percent.

Revenue from higher tobacco taxes would go toward health care programs, including expanded insurance for the uninsured and beefing up the trauma care system.

Adoption of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was considered likely, since it was supported in polls by more than a 2-1 margin.

More than one-third of the 101-member House and almost one-third of the 48-member Senate is up for grabs in the election, mainly because of the 12-year term limit law adopted in 1990.

Democrats held a slim 53-48 majority in the House and a 28-20 majority in the Senate at the start of the 2004 legislative session.

Republicans believe they have a good chance to take control of the House for the first time since 1921.

Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. in the state's 77 counties.