August 9, 2004
OUR OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE
JOHN J. MILLER
Soon after Republican senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma announced his retirement last fall, Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth placed a phone call to a doctor’s office in Muskogee. He reached Tom Coburn, a 56-year-old family practitioner. “You should run for the Senate,” said Moore. But Coburn wasn’t interested. He had just survived a bout with colon cancer, and said he had not enjoyed Washington all that much the first time around, when he was a three-term congressman in the 1990s. He preferred delivering babies in the maternity ward to kissing them on the campaign trail.
Then his health improved. He went skiing in December. The phone continued ringing and letters jammed his mailbox. A “Draft Coburn” website appeared on the Internet. Even though the kingpins of the state GOP had anointed Kirk Humphreys as Nickles’s successor, polls showed the former mayor of Oklahoma City struggling against the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Brad Carson.
On the last day of February, Coburn decided it was time to end the speculation. He wrote a statement saying he wasn’t going to run, set it aside for release the next day, and went to bed. Then he woke up in the middle of the night and changed his mind. On March 1, he was in.
Coburn’s fitful sleep may be one of the few lucky breaks Republicans will get in this year’s Senate contests. Their narrow majority leaves little room for error, especially following the party’s failure to recruit top-tier candidates in several states where they might have stood a chance to win (Arkansas, Nevada, and North Dakota), the unexpected retirement of Ben Nighthorse Campbell in Colorado, and the sudden implosion of challenger Jack Ryan in Illinois. The last thing Republicans needed was an open-seat fight against a charismatic young congressman in a red state that counts several hundred thousand more Democrats than Republicans on its voter rolls. Yet that’s exactly what they’re facing in Oklahoma.
For conservatives, the race is about much more than keeping control of the Senate: It’s about promoting one of the most energetic and talented members from the House class of 1994 to the other chamber of Congress, where right-minded legislation so often dies from neglect. In the aftermath of Pat Toomey’s defeat by Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary, Coburn probably represents the conservative movement’s most important candidacy in this year’s Senate elections.
Coburn looks like a doctor, with his glasses, salt-and-pepper hair, and a utility belt equipped with a pager and PDA. There’s a big scar on the left side of his neck, a remnant of his first fight with cancer: a malignant form of melanoma, which he beat as a young man. It was this near-death experience, in fact, that convinced him to quit the business world and enroll in medical school, graduating at the relatively advanced age of 35.
The conventional portrait of Coburn depicts him as a favorite of the religious Right, which indeed he is. Ask about his deep faith, and he will testify at length. But Coburn does not burden big-tent Republicans with expressions of religiosity: His stump speeches are all about runaway entitlement spending. He sprinkles his remarks with asides on abortion, gay marriage, and gun control — he’s against all three — but his real political passion is to reform Medicare and Social Security. Many conservative activists are more enthusiastic about reforming government than they are knowledgeable about the mechanics of success; not so with Coburn. And he’s a budget hawk with a proven record of accomplishment. In 1999, USA Today credited him with “almost single-handedly” forcing Congress to cut nearly $1 billion in spending. If there’s a flaw in his style of campaigning, it’s in the wonkishness of holding Socratic dialogues with himself over exactly what year in the future Social Security will go belly-up.
He would sound like a full-time technocrat if he were not also a doctor with a comforting bedside manner. At a speech to a Tulsa gun club in June, he took questions about preventing colon cancer. (Make sure you get enough folic acid!) But it wasn’t long before he returned to fusing his medical stories with his political convictions. “Each and every child I have delivered over the past year has owed $24,000 at the time they took their first breath,” he says, tallying each individual’s share of the national debt. Shocked at the diagnosis, parents in the room tend to gasp — and Dr. Coburn, as he unfailingly calls himself in his commercials, convinces them he’s the cure.
Perhaps he’s not afraid to deal with the politically risky subject of entitlement reform because, as a doctor, he knows how to deliver bad news. Whatever the case, he promises not to be a run-of-the-mill senator. “If you like Washington the way it is today, then don’t vote for me,” he says. Two other fairly conservative men are chasing after the same nomination: Humphreys and state corporation commissioner Bob Anthony. “They’re good guys,” says Coburn. “But I don’t think we need good guys. We need people with a little bit of grit, a little bit of meanness.”
Talk like that worries the GOP’s business-as-usual crowd, which tends to view Coburn as a maverick who would hold up a free-trade bill if he thought another cause were more important. And they’re right. Meet Coburn the provocateur: “I favor the death penalty for abortionists and other people who take life.” And Coburn the obstructionist: “Nothing else happens in the Senate until the judges are approved.” That’s fist-pumping rhetoric for many conservatives — and troubling harshness to a segment of the party that’s less ideological but more capable of writing campaign checks. This explains why Coburn’s late entry into the Senate race isn’t the only reason Humphreys will outspend him by at least three-to-one before the July 27 primary.
If Coburn weren’t running, conservatives would see Humphreys as a perfectly acceptable candidate. He’s pro-life, against gay marriage, and broadly supportive of President Bush. As mayor of Oklahoma City, he presided over a period of rapid growth and job creation, though he did raise sales taxes — or, more accurately, supported ballot initiatives extending levies that were due to expire. Conservatives would regard him as a generally reliable vote in the Senate. The choice, however, is between a journeyman conservative and a veteran all-star of the Right. Their duel probably won’t conclude on July 27, assuming Anthony’s third-place finish grabs enough votes to force a runoff on August 24.
In primary matchups such as this, candidates like Coburn are often said to be less electable in November, because of their alleged extremism and the fickleness of swing voters. This prudential view is what ultimately stopped many conservatives from supporting Toomey in Pennsylvania. But these rules don’t apply to Coburn, who is quite clearly the Oklahoma GOP’s best hope for the fall. A poll taken at the end of June showed him leading Carson by two points, and Humphreys behind Carson by seven. The result is no surprise: Coburn is a proven vote-getter among Democrats. His old House district cast its lot with Clinton twice. Yet the locals liked Coburn’s spunk, especially his (fulfilled) pledge to serve no more than six years in the House, his determination to come home every weekend to meet with patients, and his willingness to buck the GOP’s congressional bosses.
Carson’s congressional district, redrawn since the last census, overlaps much of Coburn’s former territory. “I’ll take half his vote,” promises Coburn. The rest of Oklahoma is much friendlier — it’s low-hanging fruit for a Republican who emerges from the Democrat-heavy eastern part of the state. This was the rough model for Saxby Chambliss’s Senate victory over Max Cleland in Georgia two years ago.
No matter whom the Republicans choose, the race will be close. Democrats have declared it one of their best pick-up opportunities. They see Carson, a 37-year-old baby-faced Rhodes Scholar, as a rising star in their party. Although Carson endorsed the war in Iraq, supports Arctic oil drilling, and has written a book review for The Weekly Standard, he’s clearly a liberal who likes sticking his name on budget-busting bills: Only a few dozen of his fellow House members have cosponsored higher levels of new spending. He’s been tacking to the right in recent months, reversing his previous opposition to making the Bush tax cuts permanent and saying that maybe the IRS should be abolished. He also withdrew from an expensive health-care bill, almost certainly so that his grade on the report card of the National Taxpayers Union will rise above his previous marks of one D and two Fs.
As a senator, he would be the kind of Democrat who votes with Ted Kennedy much of the time, before making a few election-year compromises to convince enough of his constituents that he’s not really part of D.C.’s Democratic in-crowd. All the while, frustrated Republicans will pull out their hair wondering why they can’t beat him.
Before that happens, of course, Carson has to beat Tom Coburn — but only if Oklahoma Republicans have the smarts to nominate him in the first place. Perhaps the GOP’s best advice may be found on a little placard Coburn keeps on the desk in his cramped doctor’s office: “Make no small plans here.”