By Hastings Wyman –
Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is finishing her second-term and will be term-limited in 2018. An open seat for governor is always a plum, easier to win than challenging an incumbent, with all the built-in advantages that a state’s CEO enjoys.
Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb (R) “is obviously going to run and is the presumed frontrunner,” says former state GOP chairman Chad Alexander. Lamb, who will be finishing his second term in the number two spot, served in the state senate for seven years, where he was elected Majority Floor Leader. He won the 2010 Republican Primary for lieutenant governor with 67% in a five-candidate race and won the General Election by 64% to 32%. “He transcends the Republican factions,” says Professor Keith Gaddie of the University of Oklahoma. He was a Secret Service agent during George W. Bush’s presidency. Other assets include that he has “a good personality and is a good fundraiser,” says Gaddie.
Lamb has already latched on to an issue which may be a vote-getter. Gov. Fallin has proposed a major tax overhaul, which would eliminate the corporate income tax but extend the sales taxes to services. The proposal would net local governments some $769 million dollars. Those directly affected, such as lawyers and funeral directors, have already begun to complain. In addition, the tax on cigarettes will increase from $1.03 a pack to $2.50, a levy that falls mainly on poor people, but proponents believe this is offset by discouraging smoking, thus improving the health of those who quit. Says Gaddie, the proposal “is not horrible, but it is controversial.”
Last week Lamb resigned from the governor’s cabinet, where he served as the Small Business Advocate (though he retains his post as lieutenant governor). While he praised Falling’s “determination” to offer a balanced budget, he said, “I cannot support her proposed tax increases. This proposal will adversely harm Oklahoma’s small businesses and families, especially those in our service industry.” Whether the issue will continue to resonate in 2018 remains to be seen, but the sales tax on funerals has already been dubbed “the death tax.”
While Lamb is the frontrunner, there is another possible contender. Gary Richardson, who got 14% of the vote in the 2002 governor’s race as a conservative independent, has an ad on social media “and has made some calls,” says Alexander. A US Attorney during President Reagan’s administration, Richardson, 75, is “still really sharp,” says Gaddie. “He’s the wild card… He knows how to talk populist. He is a very strong potential contender.” Richardson, an early Trump supporter, could potentially tap into support from Trump fans, although Ted Cruz did defeat Trump in the Oklahoma GOP primary. But Alexander says, “It’s hard to replicate what Trump did.” One major advantage Richardson would have, should he run, is that he can self-fund; he spent some $2.3 million of his own money in his 2002 race.
The last time the Democrats elected a governor was in 2002, when Brad Henry was elected. That was due in significant part to Richardson’s independent candidacy, which split the conservative vote. But several Democrats are looking at the governor’s race.
House Democratic Floor Leader Scott Inman (D), from the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, “is reminiscent of Brad Henry,” says Gaddie, “a very sharp politician. People tend to underestimate him.”
State Sen. Connie Johnson (D) was the Democratic US Senate nominee in 2014. She is an African-American from Oklahoma City and won the primary runoff, but lost badly (29% to 68%) in the General Election.
Prominent Democrats who have said they will not run include former US Rep. Dan Boren, son of former governor and current University of Oklahoma president David Boren. Also, Drew Edmonds, another scion of a long-time political family in the state, has also declined to run. And so has Joe Dornan, who garnered 40% of the vote in 2014 against Gov. Fallin. Dornan has since worked for the legalization of medical marijuana and now heads the non-profit Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
At this early juncture, the GOP is a heavy favorite to elect the Sooner State’s governor next year. After all, Oklahoma is one of the reddest states, giving Donald Trump 65% of the vote, his third best state. Nevertheless, it is early. Stay tuned.