Small turnout seen unless governor's race picks up

Saturday, August 26th 2006, 4:12 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Poor turnouts for the primary and primary runoff elections this summer have led to speculation that voter apathy is being driven by such things as a reaction to negative campaigning and the cost of driving to the polls because of high gasoline prices.

Michael Clingman, state Election Board secretary, has a simpler explanation. ``It probably means that we don't have hugely competitive races yet at the top of the ticket,'' he said.

Clingman said if recent history repeats itself, the turnout also will be so-so for the general election, mirroring the 1998 election cycle.

In that election, a strong Republican incumbent, Frank Keating, easily won re-election over an underfunded Democratic nominee, state Rep. Laura Boyd, D-Norman.

Only 873,585 people voted that year, compared with almost one million who voted when Keating was first elected in a three-way race with Democrat Jack Mildren and then-independent Wes Watkins.

Just like Keating, Democratic incumbent Gov. Brad Henry has a decided fundraising advantage over the Republican nominee, 5th District U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, who had to spend time, money and energy to win a four-candidate primary last month.

``In the primary, you had a fairly spirited race on the Republican side but token opposition on the Democratic side, which usually suggests a lower turnout and that's what happened,'' Clingman said. Henry got 87 percent of the vote against his token foe.

Keating ran for an open seat when he won his first race for governor. In 1998, he became only the second Oklahoma governor to win two terms in a row. Henry is seeking to become the third. The first was Democrat George Nigh, who won all 77 counties in 1982 in defeating Republican Tom Daxon, the current Republican state chairman.

Oklahoma governors did not become eligible to run for re-election until 1970 after adoption of a constitutional amendment.

The governor's office was vacant when Henry scored an upset over Republican Steve Largent in 2002 when more than one million voters went to the polls. A well-financed independent, Gary Richardson of Tulsa, also was on the ballot.

``If 2006 turns out to be like 1998, we could see a turnout closer to the 870,000-vote turnout then, instead of the more than a million voters that turned out four years ago,'' Clingman said.

Only 24 percent of voters showed up for the July 25 primary, much less than had been predicted.

Last week's primary runoff produced a turnout of only 17 percent, a decline of 30 percent from the regular primary. The dropoff was about 10 percent more than usually occurs between primaries and runoffs.

That was despite competitive Republican and Democratic statewide primaries for lieutenant governor and a GOP contest in the 5th Congressional District.

In the feature runoff races, Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin easily defeated Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett for the 5th District GOP nomination, Speaker Todd Hiett edged state Sen. Scott Pruitt for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, while on the Democratic side, House minority leader Jari Askins beat former congressional aide Pete Regan.

Henry, who kept a low profile early, kicked his re-election campaign into gear last week with a television commercial that spotlighted his role in overcoming a $700 million deficit in his first year and in passing record tax cuts and funding for schools.

This week, he scheduled a four-day RV tour to speak to voters in southern and eastern Oklahoma. The tour schedule included stops in Norman, Pauls Valley, Sulphur, Tishomingo, Madill, Durant, Hugo, Antlers, Atoka, Ada, Eufaula, Muskogee, Tahlequah, Pryor, Vinita, Claremore, Collinsville and Sapulpa.

In his last campaign report, Henry showed he had $2.5 million in cash on hand and had raised $3.4 million overall, while Istook had about $29,000 in cash and had raised a total of $1.2 million.

Istook spokesman Derek Kern said the congressman's campaign was ``well positioned,'' however and said other statewide candidates in recent history had overcome fundraising disadvantages to win.

Chip Englander, Istook's campaign manager, sent out an ``insider's memo'' showing that Democrats for top offices had not been able to get more than 43 percent of the vote in recent elections. Henry got 43 percent in the three-way race in 2002, about the same Keating got in winning his first race for governor in a three-candidate contest.

No independent is on the gubernatorial ballot this year.

``There is a common misconception amongst many voters and some Republicans that Brad Henry cannot be beaten this November. Nothing could be further from the truth,'' Englander said.