After the Primaries, Five Questions to Consider

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Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Voters wait in line at a polling station in Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

The primary elections on June 26 settled some lingering questions but raised a host of others.

In a historic vote, voters in one of the nation’s most conservative states indicated a readiness to legalize medical marijuana. And Oklahoma’s Republican voters decided that their choice for the next leader of the state will come down to former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt.

Elsewhere, Oklahoma voters now have a much clearer picture of who will be the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian nominees – or at least who will advance to runoffs – in a host of statewide, legislative and congressional races.

But as the dust settles on one of the most competitive primaries in years, questions remain about what the June 26 victories mean and how the results will impact elections in the months ahead. Here is a look at some of the top questions moving ahead in the aftermath.

What’s next for the gubernatorial race?

The field of 15 candidates vying to succeed term-limited Gov. Mary Fallin is now down to five candidates: Republicans Cornett and Stitt, Libertarians Chris Powell and Rex Lawhorn, and Democrat Drew Edmondson.

Stitt, left, and Cornett

Cornett and Stitt finished at the top of the 10-person GOP gubernatorial primary, respectively winning 29.3 percent and 24.4 percent of the votes. But since no candidate secured the simple majority needed to advance to the general election, they will face off again in the Aug. 28 runoff elections.

The challenge for these two candidates now will be to keep voters who supported them during the primary while picking up supporters of candidates who were eliminated.

The biggest prize of this group will be the 23.9 percent of GOP primary voters who cast ballots for Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, the one-time favorite in the race who was eliminated after he came a few thousand votes shy of cracking the top two.

A June 6-7 poll by Right Strategy Group found that more than half of Lamb supporters identified themselves as “very conservative”. This could favor Stitt because about 47 percent of his supporters said they were “very conservative” while just 30 percent of Cornett’s backers identified similarly.

Stitt, who has billed himself as pro-life “conservative outsider” on the campaign trail, also will likely try to appeal to supporters of the more right-wing candidates who were eliminated in the primary. This includes the 7.9 percent of the votes for Dan Fisher, a former state representative who campaigned largely on an anti-abortion platform, and the 4 percent of votes for outspoken fiscal conservative Gary Richardson.

Cornett, who has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican thanks in part to his support of tax increases to fund projects in Oklahoma City, could also try to shift to the right to appeal to these constituencies.

Yet a move to the moderate wing of the party could help Cornett pick up the 5.6 percent of voters who chose State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.

As Stitt and Cornett battle it out over the next eight weeks, they will also need to be mindful of winning over the overall electorate to claim the governor’s mansion.

Unlike the two remaining GOP candidates, Edmondson will have an opportunity to immediately begin fundraising and strategizing for the general election.

Despite Oklahoma’s conservative leanings, national party leaders see the race as an opening for Democrats to steal what many have considered a safe Republican post.

In a statement shortly after Edmondson’s primary win Tuesday, Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Elisabeth Pearson released a statement noting that “Republicans are facing two more months of nasty campaigning and expensive party infighting” and that Edmondson offers an alternative to “Fallin-era policies.”

Edmondson

But in an indication that both parties are taking this race seriously, the Republican Governors Association released its own statement a short time later that called Edmondson “too liberal for Oklahoma.”

“Edmondson was a major supporter of Hillary Clinton, joined her campaign team and stood by Clinton even after she called Oklahomans ‘backward,’” said RGA Communications Director Jon Thompson. “If elected, Edmondson would impose a tax-and-spend liberal agenda, while supporting massive increases in government spending.”

What’s next for medical marijuana?

In the only state question on the ballot, Oklahomans overwhelmingly voted to become the 31st state to legalize medical marijuana.

As it stands now, Oklahoma will have one of the least restrictive medical marijuana laws in the nation, as there are no specifically named medical conditions that a patient must have to be eligible to receive a license to buy or grow marijuana.

Instead, it will be up to board-certified doctors to determine if patients should receive permission.

This could change when the Legislature comes back into session.

Because SQ 788 was a statutory ballot initiative rather than a constitutional one, lawmakers can alter the law with simple majority votes in the House and Senate along with the signature of the governor.

Fallin, as well as legislative leaders, said earlier this year they plan to go into a special session to establish the legal framework for buying, growing and selling marijuana should the state question pass.

In a statement after Tuesday’s vote, Fallin said the “new law is written so loosely that it opens the door for basically recreational marijuana” and she’ll be working with lawmakers to “make sure marijuana use is truly for valid medical illnesses.”

While minor changes are possible, lawmakers could essentially overhaul the law by adding new polices or restrictions that would limit who can buy or sell the drug.

This could include revisiting a failed bill from the past legislative session, sponsored by Sen. Ervin Yen, R-Oklahoma City, that would limit medical marijuana to the terminally ill or those suffering from conditions caused by neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis, cancer or AIDS.

In a possible sign that lawmakers who want to add excessive restrictions could draw the wrath of voters, Yen was among the incumbents who were defeated Tuesday.

But in many districts, particularly conservative rural ones, the state question wasn’t popular. That could embolden some lawmakers to try to overhaul the new law.

Will legislative incumbents continue to be defeated?

Tuesday’s primary showed that voter anger and dissatisfaction wasn’t limited to the thousands who protested daily at the State Capitol during the two-week teacher walkout.

Of the 37 legislative incumbents who faced primary challengers, six were booted out of office and nine will have to survive runoffs to advance to the general election.

The ousted incumbents included five House Republicans: Reps. Steve Vaughan, R-Ponca City; Gregory Babinec, R-Cushing; Scooter Park, R-Devol; Scott McEachin, R-Tulsa; and Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks. Yen was the only senator to lose a seat.

Of this group, McEachin and Strohm were among those who voted against House Bill 1010xx, the controversial $425 million tax-raising bill that paid for the teacher pay package.

But several more of those who voted against the tax-raising bill could lose their jobs after August’s runoff.

Of the 10 incumbents who failed to win a simple majority but secured enough votes to move into a run-off, seven were no votes on HB1010xx: Reps. Travis Dunlap, R-Bartlesville; George Faught, R-Muskogee; Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville; Sean Roberts, R-Hominy; Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow; Jeff Coody, R-Grandfield, and Tess Teague, R-Choctaw.

The three other incumbents facing a runoff are Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa; John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, and Jadine Nollan, R-Sand Springs.

Primary Results for Legislative Incumbents

Of the 37 House or Senate incumbents who faced a primary challenger on Tuesday, 21 won their race outright, 10 advanced to a run-off and six were defeated. Elections results show the incumbents margin of victory or defeat (the difference between the share of votes cast for the winning candidate and the second-place candidate) ranged widely as some won by more than 50 percentage points and others lost by more 20 percentage points.

NameCityPartyChamberDistrictPrimary Election ResultMargin of Victory/Defeat
Karen GaddisTulsaDemocratHouse75Won55.92
Monroe NicholsTulsaDemocratHouse72Won50.16
Chris KannadyOklahoma CityRepublicanHouse91Won49.22
Mark McBrideMooreRepublicanHouse53Won48.79
Stephanie BiceEdmondRepublicanSenate22Won46.42
Mike OsburnEdmondRepublicanHouse81Won45.33
Dell KerbsShawneeRepublicanHouse26Won36.57
Ryan MartinezEdmondRepublicanHouse39Won33.9
Josh WestGroveRepublicanHouse5Won32.21
Harold WrightWeatherfordRepublicanHouse57Won31.26
Charles McCallAtokaRepublicanHouse22Won29.68
Jason N. SmalleyStroudRepublicanSenate28Won28.64
Frank SimpsonArdmoreRepublicanSenate14Won27.24
Ross FordBroken ArrowRepublicanHouse76Won27.2
Bobby ClevelandSlaughtervilleRepublicanHouse20Run-Off26.42
Mark Dean AllenSpiroRepublicanSenate4Won26.34
Mark LawsonSapulpaRepublicanHouse30Run-Off24.99
Rhonda BakerYukonRepublicanHouse60Won24.28
Tom GannInolaRepublicanHouse8Run-Off22.84
George FaughtMuskogeeRepublicanHouse14Won16.13
Kim DavidPorterRepublicanSenate18Won14.64
Lewis H. MooreArcadiaRepublicanHouse96Won11.92
Tess TeagueChoctawRepublicanHouse101Run-Off11.44
John PfeifferOrlandoRepublicanHouse38Run-Off11.23
Jadine NollanSand SpringsRepublicanHouse66Run-Off9.08
Chad CaldwellEnidRepublicanHouse40Won6.4
Travis DunlapBartlesvilleRepublicanHouse10Run-Off4.8
Sean RobertsHominyRepublicanHouse36Run-Off0.91
Jeff CoodyGrandfieldRepublicanHouse63Run-Off0.63
Kevin McDugleBroken ArrowRepublicanHouse12Won0.06
Mike RitzeBroken ArrowRepublicanHouse80Run-Off-2.92
Scooter ParkDevolRepublicanHouse65Lost-3.7
Steve VaughanPonca CityRepublicanHouse37Lost-15.86
Ervin Stone YenNichols HillsRepublicanSenate40Lost-20.1
Scott William McEachinTulsaRepublicanHouse67Lost-24.38
Chuck StrohmJenksRepublicanHouse69Lost-27.4
Gregory P. BabinecCushingRepublicanHouse33Lost-32.78

Unlike Republicans, Democratic incumbents faced few problems in advancing from their primary races.

The two Democrats who faced primary challenges –  Reps. Karen Gaddis, D-Tulsa, and Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa – both easily fended off their challengers.

Although the majority of incumbents survived Tuesday, the results could indicate a greater anti-incumbent sentiment than in past years.

In 2016, just three incumbents lost primary challenges and no incumbent lost in the general election.

But with a record-breaking number of candidates who filed for office this year, there will be more contested races this fall and more opportunities for incumbents to get beaten.

How will the teacher caucus fare?

Tuesday offered the first look at how the so-called “teacher caucus” could do this year.

During the end of the two-week walkout, more than 100 current or former public school teachers or administrators filed for legislative offices.

This was the second straight election cycle in which many educators expressed interest in running, as did numerous public education supporters. Both groups launched campaigns centered on securing money for greater teacher pay and increased classroom resources.

Last year, that resulted in just a handful of educators taking office – and those that did were able to do so by running for open seats.

This year’s signs point to a better showing among educator candidates, but their ultimate success will still depend on how they fare in the general election.

Close to 85 members of the teacher caucus group faced off in Tuesday’s primaries. Of those, 18 Democrats and five Republicans won their primary races. In addition, eight Democrats and eight Republicans advanced to runoffs with the chance to win their party’s nominations in August.

Among the notable wins was Mark Vancuren, a former Owasso high school biology teacher and basketball coach, who won the House District 74 Republican primary. And since no Democrats, Libertarians or Independents filed for the seat, he has already secured a seat in the Legislature.

Toni Hasenbeck, a seventh-grade teacher at Elgin Public Schools, was the only educator to upset an incumbent Tuesday. She defeated Rep. Scooter Park, R-Devol, in the House District 65 race.

But tough challenges await some educators who advanced Tuesday or who had already secured spots on the general election ballot by virtue of not drawing primary opponents.

This is particularly true for many of the 18 Democrats who won their party’s primary Tuesday. Half of this group will be facing Republicans in districts currently held by GOP lawmakers.

Will there be any upsets in congressional races?

The primary offered few surprises in contests for the state’s five congressional seats.

As expected, the three Republican U.S. House incumbents on the ballot – Tom Cole, Markwayne Mullin and Steve Russell – easily fought off their primary challenges. They will join U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, who didn’t face a primary opponent, on the general election ballot.

The Republican nomination for the open First District seat, which covers Tulsa and the northeast corner of the state, will come down to a runoff between McDonald’s franchise owner Kevin Hern and former Tulsa District Attorney Tim Harris.

On the Democratic side, the only nomination decided Tuesday was in the Third District,  where Frankie Robbins won with 64.9 percent of the vote. Democrats will face off in runoff races for each of the four other congressional seats.

Regardless of how those races play out, the five eventual GOP nominees will be the favorites come November.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which predicts how secure each congressional seat in the nation is, rates the seats held by Cole, Mullin and Lucas, and the First District seat, as “safely Republican.”

Only Russell’s Fifth District seat, which covers Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, is given the slightly more vulnerable “likely Republican” rating.

Russell will face the winner of the Democratic runoff between Kendra Horn or Tom Guild.

Horn, who took in 43.8 percent in Tuesday’s primary compared to Guild’s 17.9 percent, is expected to be the favorite in the race.

Not only did Horn receive more than twice as many votes as Guild during the primary, she has been the only Democratic candidate in the congressional races to raise a sizable campaign chest.

As of the latest filing period, which covers fundraising through June 6, she had raised $372,000 – more than the amount raised by all other Democrats in the five races combined.