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Decision 2020: 14 Southern U.S. Senate seats on November ballot, with 4 possible flips

Races in North Carolina, Alabama on national radar; Lindsey Graham faces stiff challenge in South Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Fourteen Southern U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot in November, putting half of the South’s seats in play with control of the chamber very much up for grabs.

Of these seats, one presents a likely pickup opportunity for Republicans, while three Republican incumbents are facing stiff challenges. Three other seats are somewhat competitive but with incumbents still favored, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s race in Kentucky.

Five senators — four Republicans and one Democrat — are cruising toward re-election, with Republicans also likely to keep an open seat in Tennessee. A special election in Georgia with candidates from both parties running in the same race is a wild card that will be difficult to predict — and could potentially decide which part controls the Senate when the dust clears.

Here is your guide to the 2020 Southern Senate races.

Possible Flips

1. Alabama: U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D) vs. Tommy Tuberville (R)

Jones has had a target on his back since he won a special election in 2017 over Republican Roy Moore, whose candidacy imploded in a sex scandal. Jones was the first Democrat elected to a Senate seat in the Yellowhammer State since 1992; his vote to convict President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial has put his continued tenure in jeopardy. Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University, is making his political debut, impressively taking out a field of prominent Republicans in the primary, including Jeff Sessions, who held this seat for 20 years before leaving to join the Trump administration. If Jones somehow manages to hang on, it will be perhaps the biggest surprise on election night.

2. North Carolina: U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R) vs.  Cal Cunningham (D)

Cunningham, an attorney who served a single term in the legislature 20 years ago and made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2010, was recruited by Democratic leaders in Washington to run against Tillis, who is seeking a second term after ousting former Democratic Senator Kay Hagin in 2014. This seat was once held by Jesse Helms, and no one has managed to win a second term since he gave it up in 2002. Cunningham has raised $15 million, slightly more than Tillis, and has led consistently in polls. The outcome of the presidential race in this battleground state may be key here. If Donald Trump wins, Tillis is likely to keep his seat as well; if he doesn’t, Cunningham will be in the driver’s seat.

3. South Carolina: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R) vs. Jaime Harrison (D)

Over the past four years, Graham has become one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, after spending much of the 2016 campaign trashing him. That about-face spared him from the kind of primary challenge he had to beat back in 2014, but Harrison, a former state Democratic party chair, is hoping Graham’s association with the president will turn off enough Palmetto State voters to put him over the top. Harrison has raised a staggering $30 million — an unheard of sum for a Democrat in South Carolina — to stay even with the incumbent in the money chase. While polling shows the race is competitive, Trump is expected to carry the state, and the universe of Trump-Harrison voters may be too small to flip this seat.

4. Georgia: U.S Senator David Perdue (R) vs. Jon Ossoff (D)

It’s been a long time since Georgia has been competitive in a presidential or senatorial contest, but polling has shown Ossoff within striking distance of Perdue, who is seeking a second term. Ossoff built a national profile by raising more than $30 million for a special U.S. House election in 2017 that he narrowly lost. He hasn’t raised anywhere near that kind of money this time around, and Perdue enjoys a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage. Democrats insist that the Peach State’s changing demographics and an influx of newly energized, newly registered Democratic voters will lead to victory for Ossoff and Democratic nominee Joe Biden; Republicans scoff at such a scenario as delusional. If Biden makes a serious play for Georgia, it could help Ossoff; if Biden wins, Perdue will need to run ahead of Trump to survive.

Less Competitive

1. Texas: U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R) vs. MJ Hegar (D)

Democrats had high hopes for flipping this seat, particularly after Beto O’Rourke nearly took out Ted Cruz in 2018. But O’Rourke passed on the Senate race to make a quixotic bid for president, and Hegar, a former military chopper pilot and Afghan war veteran who lost a House race in 2018, had to spend time and money fighting her way through a primary runoff. Cornyn entered the fall campaign with the benefit of incumbency and a huge financial advantage, in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. This could turn out to be a might-have-been race for Democrats — what might have been if O’Rouke had run instead.

2. Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) vs. Amy McGrath (D)

Democratic leaders recruited McGrath for this race, enthused by her prodigious fundraising during an unsuccessful House race in 2018. But running against McConnell in Kentucky is a tall order, and she has not always seemed up to the task. Her campaign had an unsteady launch when she flipped positions on confirming Brett Kavanaugh, and she very nearly lost the Democratic primary after mishandling her response to racial justice protests that have roiled Louisville. After an uneven campaign, she decided change campaign managers in August, which is never a good sign. There’s a reason Mitch McConnell has been a senator since 1985 — he is perhaps the wiliest politician of his generation. His tenure in Washington seems likely to endure.

3. Mississippi: U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) vs. former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D)

This race is a rematch of 2018, when Hyde-Smith beat Espy by 8 points in a special election runoff, running nearly 10 points behind what Trump did in 2016. Espy was encouraged enough by his showing to try to take her down again, hoping that the energy unleashed by social justice protests will galvanize black voters, who make up 37percent of the state’s electorate, the highest percentage in the country. However, if he couldn’t beat Hyde-Smith in a lower turnout midterm election, beating her with the presidential election on the ballot, in a very pro-Trump state, is likely to be a tall order.

Wild Card

Georgia: U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R) vs. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R), Raphael Warnock (D) and Matt Lieberman (D)

In this special election to fill the seat vacated by Johnny Isakson, candidates from all parties run in the same race, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a December runoff. Loeffler is trying to keep this seat after being appointed to the post by Gov. Brian Kemp, who opted to pick the political newcomer instead of Collins, one of Trump’s biggest champions in the House. Collins defied the governor to run against Loeffler, splitting Peach State Republicans into two camps.

On the Democratic side, Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has drawn support from the party establishment who see him as the best option to win the seat. But Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, has resisted pressure to leave the race in favor of Warnock, and polls have shown him remaining competitive. If Warnock and Lieberman split the Democratic vote, it could clear the way for both Loeffler and Collins to meet in an all-GOP second round. If one Republican and one Democrat get through, the outcome of the race is likely to depend on who those two candidates are.

Shoo-Ins

Arkansas: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R) faces no Democratic competition after the lone Democrat who qualified abruptly left the race. The only person standing between Cotton and re-election is Libertarian Ricky Harrington.

Tennessee: Republican Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, has a much easier path to Washington after the Democrat recruited and financed by party leaders to challenge for the seat lost his primary. He will now face Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist from Memphis who harnessed grassroots support to win the primary.

West Virginia: U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) is not expected to have much trouble against Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist who gained national exposure when her 2018 race against the state’s other U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, was featured in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down The House.”

Oklahoma: If U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R), as expected, wins a fifth full term over Democrat Abby Broyles, he will be 92 when this term ends in 2026. Broyles, a former TV reporter in Oklahoma City, has run a spirited campaign in which she’s needled the senator for refusing to debate her.

Virginia: Giving the Old Dominion’s increasingly Democratic tilt, U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D) is a clear favorite over Republican Daniel Gade, a former Army officer who was wounded in Iraq and now teaches at American University in Washington.

Louisiana: U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R) is competing in a jungle primary in November and will face a runoff in December if he doesn’t clear 50%. He avoided any major Republican opposition; the biggest Democratic name in the race is Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins.

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Oklahoma Primary: Voters say yes to Obamacare Medicaid expansion

Neese, Bice advance to runoff for chance to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

OKLAHOMA CITY (CFP) — Voters in deep-red Oklahoma narrowly approved expanding Medicaid in Tuesday’s primary election, overriding Republican politicians who had blocked expansion for more than a decade because of its association with Obamacare.

With Tuesday’s vote, Oklahoma becomes the fourth conservative, Republican-led state where voters have used the initiative process to force Medicaid expansion over the objections of political leaders.

State voters said yes to Medicaid expansion by a margin of 50.5% to 49.5%, a margin of just 6,500 votes.

Also Tuesday, Republicans in the 5th U.S. House District in metro Oklahoma City narrowed their choice to two candidates — businesswoman Terry Neese and State Senator Stephanie Bice — who will now compete in an August runoff for the right to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, who flipped the seat in 2018 and is one of the GOP’s top targets for 2020.

Neese took 37% to Bice’s 25% to earn runoff spots from the nine-candidate field.

Sooner State Democrats also picked Abby Broyles, a former investigative reporter for an Oklahoma City television station, as their nominee to face U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe. She carried 60% against three other candidates.

Given the state’s strong Republican tilt, Inhofe, running for his fifth full term, will be the prohibitive favorite in November. At 85, if he wins, he’ll be 92 by the time his term ends in 2029.

Oklahoma had been one of 14 Republican-controlled states whose leaders have refused to expand Medicaid to extend coverage to low-income residents without insurance who don’t currently qualify for the program but can’t afford private coverage on the Obamacare exchanges.

According to proponents, expansion could benefit 200,000 state residents and help rescue rural hospitals how in financial trouble.

Proponents collected enough petition signatures to put expansion on the ballot Tuesday as a constitutional amendment, following similar successful efforts in the conservative states of Utah, Idaho and Nebraska to use voter initiatives to get around lawmakers philosophically opposed to participating in Obamacare.

Republican Governor Kevin Stitt opposed expansion, arguing that the state cannot afford to cover its part of the cost amid a budget crunch caused by the coronavirus crisis.

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Oklahoma Primary: Voters will decide whether to expand Medicaid under Obamacare

Republicans will also pick challenger to Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

OKLAHOMA CITY (CFP) — Voters in Oklahoma will decide Tuesday whether to make an end run around resistant statehouse politicians and implement Medicaid expansion authorized as part of Obamacare.

Also in Tuesday’s primary, voters in the 5th U.S. House District in metro Oklahoma City will pick a nominee to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, who flipped the seat in 2018 and is one of the GOP’s top targets for 2020.

Sooner State Democrats will also pick a nominee to face Republican U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe, running for a fifth full term that could secure his place in the Senate into his 90s.

In-person voting opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m., although absentee voting is expected to break records due to concerns about coronavirus.

Oklahoma is one of 14 Republican-controlled states whose leaders have refused to expand Medicaid to extend coverage to low-income residents without insurance who don’t currently qualify for the program but can’t afford private coverage on the Obamacare exchanges.

According to proponents, expansion could benefit 200,000 state residents and help rescue rural hospitals how in financial trouble.

Proponents collected enough petition signatures to put expansion on the ballot Tuesday as a constitutional amendment, following similar successful efforts in the conservative states of Utah, Idaho and Nebraska to use voter initiatives to get around lawmakers philosophically opposed to participating in Obamacare.

Republican Governor Kevin Stitt also opposes expansion, arguing that the state cannot afford to cover its part of the cost amid a budget crunch caused by the coronavirus crisis.

In the 5th District, nine Republicans are competing for the right to take on Horn, with the race expected to come down to State Senator Stephanie Bice and businesswoman Terry Neese, both of whom have raised $1 million for the race. Also in the field is former State School Superintendent Janet Barresi and David Hill, a businessman from Edmond.

If no candidate wins a majority Tuesday, the top two voter-getters will face off in an Aug. 25 runoff for the right to face Horn, whose election to the House from deep-red Oklahoma was one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 cycle.

Horn has raised more than $3.3 million as she fights to keep her seat.

The Democratic race for U.S. Senate features four candidates, including Abby Broyles, a former investigative reporter for an Oklahoma City television station, and Elysabeth Britt, a human resources professional who finished third in the 5th District race in 2018.

Inhofe will be the prohibitive favorite in November. At 85, if he wins, he’ll be 92 by the time his term ends in 2029.

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President Donald Trump returns to campaign trail with raucous rally in Tulsa

Smaller-than-anticipated crowd attends event, the country’s first large-scale indoor gathering since the coronavirus lockdown

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TULSA (CFP) — After being sidelined from the campaign trail for three months by the coronavirus lockdown, President Donald Trump was back in his element Saturday night, addressing thousands of adoring supporters as he returned to the campaign trail in Tulsa.

“I stand before you today to declare that the silent majority is stronger than ever before,” Trump told the crowd at the BOK Center. “We”re going to stop the radical left. We’re going to build a future of safety and opportunity for Americans of every race, color, religion and creed.”

Donald Trump rallies supporters in Tulsa (From Fox News via YouTube)

Trump touted the achievements of his first term, saying that “together, we are taking back our country. We are returning it to you, the American people.”

While the campaign claimed that more than 1 million people had registered for the event and had set expectations of a capacity crowd, parts of the arena were visibly empty. According to the Tulsa Fire Department, only 6,200 people attended, based on a count conducted by the fire marshal.

Trump and Pence had been scheduled to address the crowd in an overflow area set up outside the arena, but that event was canceled, and crews began dismantling the stage as Trump was speaking inside.

Trump campaign officials issued a statement saying “radical protesters, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the President’s supporters.” Trump told the audience that “a bunch of maniacs” had interfered with the rally, although news media coverage showed no significant violence or obstructions outside of the arena.

State and local police and National Guard units had been brought in to provide security for the event and separate rally-goers from groups who were protesting the event in downtown Tulsa near the arena.

In his return to active campaigning, Trump, who had promised his supporters a “wild evening,” didn’t disappoint, offering up plenty of political red meat in a speech that lasted for nearly an hour and 50 minutes.

He attacked the “fake news” as “sick,” called coronavirus “kung flu,” complained that an “unhinged left-wing mob is trying to desecrate our history,” and called activists trying to defund the police “stone cold crazy.”

And he heaped particular scorn on the Democrat he will face in November, Joe Biden, repeatedly calling him “Sleepy Joe,” implying that Biden is unwell, and charging that he has “surrendered to the left-wing mob.”

“If Biden is elected, he will surrender the country to these mobsters,” Trump said. “If Democrats gain power, the rioters will gain control.”

Trump also called for a new law mandating jail time for people who burn the American flag and decried protests against police violence from NFL players, saying “we will never kneel to our national anthem or our great American flag.”

The rally was the country’s first large-scale indoor gathering since the coronavirus lockdown began in March. While attendees were screened with temperature checks before entering, there was little social distancing among the crowd, and most people — including Trump — did not wear face masks, which were optional.

The doors of the arena opened four hours before the event began, with people sitting in close proximity the entire time.

Local health officials in Tulsa expressed concerns about holding the rally amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The Oklahoma Supreme Court Friday rejected a request to force attendees to abide by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which would have required social distancing and masks.

Attendees had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue the campaign if they were exposed to coronavirus. On the morning of the event, Trump campaign officials acknowledged that six workers who had helped set up the rally tested positive for coronavirus.

In his remarks, Trump did not address the coronavirus concerns surrounding the rally, but he did tout his administration’s response to the pandemic, which he said saved “hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Biden took to Twitter to chide the president for going ahead with the rally despite concerns about exposing attendees to the virus.

“Donald Trump is so eager to get back to his campaign rallies that he’s willing to put people at risk and violate CDC guidelines — as long as they sign a waiver promising not to hold his campaign liable,” Biden said. “Unbelievable.”

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4 Southern U.S. House Democrats in Trump seats break with party on coronavirus vote

Georgia’s Lucy McBath is only Southern Democrat in a seat Trump carried to vote for $3 trillion spending bill

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — Four of the five Southern Democrats trying to hold seats from U.S. House districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 have voted against a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package pushed through the House by Democratic leaders late Friday.

The lone Southern Democrat in a Trump seat who voted for the measure was U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who represents a district in Atlanta’s near northwest suburbs. She came under immediate fire from her leading GOP opponent for supporting “her San Francisco buddy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in the vote.

Voting no were U.S. Reps. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, and Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, both from Virginia.

Five other Democrats who in 2018 flipped Republican-held districts that Trump didn’t carry in 2016 voted for the measure, including Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida, Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, and Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher of Texas.

The measure, dubbed as the HEROES Act by its sponsors, passed the House on a mostly party-line vote of 208-199. It would provide nearly $1 billion to state, local and tribal governments that have seen their tax revenues plunge during the coronavirus shutdown, along with $100 billion for farmers who have faced market dislocations.

The measure would also provide another round of $1,200 stimulus payments to Americans, including undocumented immigrants; extend supplemental federal unemployment payments until January; forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for every borrower; provide money for election security; and inject $25 billion into the U.S. Postal Service.

The $3 trillion price tag for the package — along with the provisions on student loan debt, election security, and including undocumented immigrants in stimulus payments — have drawn strong opposition from Republican leaders in the Senate, who have pronounced the plan dead on arrival.

By voting against the bill, the Southern Democrats in Trump districts were trying to avoid being tagged with support for a doomed, partisan spending plan that could be weaponized by their Republican opponents in the fall.

Cunningham, who represents the 1st District in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, called the bill “Washington politics at its worst.”

“While South Carolina families, small business owners, and workers are struggling, now is not the time to advance a partisan wish list or refuse to come to the negotiating table,” Cunningham said in a statement. “At a time when our country is in real trouble, we should not be spending precious time on one-sided solutions that aren’t going anywhere.

Horn, who represents the 5th District in and around Oklahoma City, called the measure “a messaging bill” that lacked bi-partisan support and was “a disservice to the American people, especially during a time of crisis.”

“This is not the time for partisan gamesmanship, this is the time to find common ground and deliver help where it is needed most,” Horn said in a statement.  “In response to COVID-19, our relief efforts must be targeted, timely, and transparent. The HEROES Act does not meet those standards.”

Luria, who represents Virginia’s 2nd district in the Hampton Roads area, noted that the bill would double federal spending this year “and spending of this scale requires careful consideration and input from all members, not just one party.”

“Relief legislation must address the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as pave the path to economic recovery,” Luria said in a statement. “Unfortunately, there are many elements of the bill that are unrelated to addressing Americans’ most immediate needs associated with COVID-19, which distract from addressing our most urgent priorities during this pandemic.”

Spanberger, who represents the 7th District in and around Richmond, said some of her Democratic colleagues “have decided to use this package as an opportunity to make political statements and propose a bill that goes far beyond pandemic relief and has no chance at becoming law, further delaying the help so many need.”

“We must come together to build a targeted, timely relief package that avoids partisan posturing and instead prioritizes combating our nationwide public health emergency, addressing catastrophic unemployment rates, and protecting the security of the next generation,” Spanberger said in a statement.

After the vote, McBath released a statement in which she did not offer a detailed explanation for her support of the bill, beyond saying that she was “fighting” for more funding for hospitals, first responders and the unemployed.

“This pandemic has caused grief for thousands, financial difficulty for millions, and drastic changes to the lives of every American,” she said. “Families across the country agree that more must be done to protect the health and financial well-being of our loved ones.”

But her leading Republican opponent, Karen Handel, charged that McBath “voted with the far left of her party to approve a $3 trillion partisan spending spree on out-of-touch, liberal priorities.”

“Nancy Pelosi has a true and loyal friend in Lucy McBath,” Handel said in a statement posted on Twitter. “When faced with backing the Speaker’s extreme agenda or representing the interests of [her district], McBath chooses her San Francisco buddy every time.”

McBath unseated Handel in 2018 in the 6th District, which Trump narrowly carried in 2016. Handel will face four other GOP candidates in the June 9 primary for the right to take on McBath again in November.

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