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August 16, 2012

Candidates ready for runoff election

GRADY COUNTY — Republicans didn’t exactly stampede polling places in the June primary for newly drawn Oklahoma Senate District 43, and chances are, even fewer will vote in the Aug. 28 runoff.

The stakes are higher, however, than some might realize.

The runoff will decide whether Republicans Peggy Davenport of Duncan or Corey Brooks of Washington, Okla., takes on Democrat Mike Fullerton of Newcastle in November.

But it also could help determine who represents most of Stephens County, all of McClain County and parts of Grady and Garvin counties in the state Senate for a long time to come.

Republicans at the state Capitol drew new district boundaries last year with mostly themselves in mind, and although some districts were purposefully reconfigured to be compact, Democratic havens, District 43 – which includes Marlow, Bray, Velma and most of Duncan and Comanche - was not one of them.

“It should be a seat Republicans have a good shot at,” said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. “It was not meant to be a safe Democratic seat.”

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Stephens County portion of the district by 10,409 to 7,292, while Republicans lead in McClain County 9,571 to 8,925. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the district in Garvin and Grady counties.

But most of the district’s new area is currently represented by Republican senators, and Oklahoma has become an increasingly red state over the past decade. Republicans now have significant majorities in the state House and Senate, and Barack Obama did not carry a single county in Oklahoma in the 2008 presidential race.

Obama, the top Democrat on the Oklahoma ballot again this fall, only carried 57 percent of the vote in the state’s Democratic presidential primary in March against four relatively unknowns. And he only got 38 percent of the vote in Stephens County, though it was still enough to win it.

Fullerton, the Democrat awaiting the winner in the GOP District 43 runoff, is not dissuaded. He was raised in Duncan and Empire, has worked engineering projects in the Duncan area and now lives in Newcastle in the northern part of the district.

Fullerton has been campaigning unopposed as the Democratic candidate.

“I’m not your typical politician and I’m not your typical Democrat, I’m a conservative Democrat,” said Fullerton. “I’m a hometown boy and I feel like I have a good chance. Of all the candidates, I probably have the most physical responsibility. I have family in Stephens County all the way up to McClain County.”

State senators are elected to four-year terms, but the District 43 winner in November can capture incumbency advantages as well.

According to an analysis by The Tulsa World, incumbents in the state Legislature have lost only 8.4 percent of the time since 1980. In the last four election cycles, the incumbent defeat rate was only 6 percent.

“Odds are, whoever wins this time (in District 43) will hold it for 12 years,” Gaddie said. Term limits bar state lawmakers from serving more than 12 years.

Brooks, a rancher and former Naval Reserve officer, finished first in the June 26 GOP primary with 1,664 votes – nearly 46 percent. Davenport, who owns an insurance agency in Duncan, was second with 928 votes, just over 25 percent. Primary candidates must win 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff.

Clark Southard of Duncan and Ron Magar of Newcastle were third and fourth, each getting about 14 percent each.

Brooks won 53 percent of the vote in McClain County, compared with 21 percent for Davenport, and also won Stephens County with 568 votes (about 35 percent) to Davenport’s 486 votes (about 30 percent).

Voter turnout was only 22.5 percent, and if typical patterns hold, Gaddie said vote totals for the runoff could drop by one-third. Runoffs largely are about remobilizing support from the primary and getting backers to the polls again – and Brooks’ sizable lead in the primary vote can’t be overlooked.

“The odds are with the front-runner,” Gaddie said. “It doesn’t mean the second-place person can’t overcome, it just means the odds are long and get longer based on how much more the frontrunner got (in the primary).”

But Davenport said she feels good about the runoff.

Among other things, she is touting her experience as a successful small business owner and organizing opposition to a $118 million Duncan Public Schools bond issue in 2010 that she said was too costly, would have abandoned neighborhood elementary schools and raised property taxes.

Eighty-two percent of voters rejected the bond issue that year.  

Davenport said she has continued to stay in touch with those who supported her in the primary and then some.

“It’s all about getting voters out,” she said. “You can’t let up because there are a lot of doors to knock, and you can’t get to know them all, but it’s an opportunity to visit and give them a feel for what kind of legislator you would be.”

Davenport said she was recruited by Republican state Sen. Anthony Sykes, who currently represents Duncan and most of Stephens County, and is endorsed by state Auditor Gary Jones and former Duncan mayor and now state Rep. Dennis Johnson.

She hopes their support pays off.

Brooks, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, says he is a constitutional conservative who believes in smaller, more efficient state government. He said he is not taking his primary showing for granted.

“We continue to run our campaign like we are behind no matter what and get out the voters where they are and just show them we are working hard and are eager to have their vote,” he said.

Davenport and Brooks have each put some of their own money into this year’s race.

According to state campaign finance reports ending June 11, Davenport had raised about $16,400, including a loan to herself of $6,145. Brooks had collected about $44,535, with more than half of that - $28,000 – through his own loan.

Brooks said he made the loan in large part because he did not return to Oklahoma from duty in Afghanistan until February and got a later jump in the campaign than Davenport and Southard.

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