Women Candidates in Oklahoma: Sticking to the Issues Instead of Sticking it to Each Other

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Women Candidates in Oklahoma: Sticking to the Issues Instead of Sticking it to Each Other

Jodi Jacobson

Does having more women in politics change the tone of politics?  Two female gubernatorial candidates in a conservative state give it a try.

This article is cross-posted from Women’s Campaign Forum’s MsRepresentation site, for which I am a guest writer during the last three weeks leading up to the election. Click here to receive MsRepresentation’s Daily Brief every morning via email.

One of the key arguments of proponents of gender equity in politics is that putting more women in office will not only lead to a government more representative of the governed, but that women as a whole will change the tone of politics, and also focus more on people and human needs.

I admit that while I am a strong proponent of women taking and using political power for the common good, and an equally strong proponent of women running for office—I’d love to see a majority female Congress to reflect the majority female population of this country—I am skeptical of stereotyping “women” writ large.

There have been and are in today’s current electoral cycle plenty of examples of women politicians who do not, in my mind, have the best interests of women, or groups facing discrimination, at heart. I personally don’t think anti-choice female politicians, for example, will be better than anti-choice male politicians if elected to office; I don’t think “free-market, no-government-regulation” Sharron Angle will be better for children, health care, or the environment than are her compatriots Jon Cornryn or Mitch McConnell.

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That being said, if women candidates do agree to change the nature and tenor of campaigns, that in itself can change the process of elections, whatever the outcomes. So if someone wins based on the issues, rather than on smearing, you know better where things stand.

And the two female candidates for governor in Oklahoma appear to be striving to do just that in a historic campaign that will in either case result in the election of Oklahoma’s first female governor.

Michael McNutt of NewsOk.com reports that Oklahoma’s two female gubernatorial candidates, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jari Askins and GOP nominee Mary Fallin, appear to be striving to create a more civil campaign for governor, eschewing attack ads and bitter campaign rhetoric in favor of focusing on…..issues!

“Their campaigns are generally reluctant to bash each other,” said Mike Turpen, a former state attorney general who lost a gubernatorial bid in the 1986 Democratic primary and remains active in Democratic Party politics.

“Mary and Jari in their ads and their appearances together have been very civil and issue-oriented,” Turpen said. “Men are more likely, in my experience in Oklahoma politics, to take off the gloves and start what a lot of people call negative campaigning or at least running comparative ads.

“I think Jari and Mary both know this is a historic moment in Oklahoma’s history and they’ve decided to be very civil and respectful of each other,” he said. “It would help Jari more politically if she came after Mary as Mary has on the RGA ads against Jari but I think Jari has decided to be more statesmanlike and we’ll see if that pays off Nov. 2…. It’s my perception that they may take it all the way to Nov. 2 being positive and not going negative.”

Others have predicted a turn to negative advertising as the race tightens toward election day.  Right now, polls show Askins well behind Fallin.  But Oklahoma race-watchers say that the same predictions about Askins—she’s behind and will lose—were made in the days before her win in the primaries.

Moreover, political analysts in Oklahoma cite both women as great campaigners. In another story on the race by McNutt, several experts warned against writing either woman off.

Pat McFerron, director of survey research for Cole, Hargrave, Snodgrass and Associates, said Askins and Fallin are the two most underrated politicians during the past decade in the state.

“People might have tried to write them off … but both of them are fierce campaigners,” he said.

Turpen pointed out to NewsOk that the candidates’ strategy does not comport with his own political campaign recipe for winning.

“I’ve always said there’s only three times you run a negative campaign and that’s if you’re behind, even or ahead,” he said. “Unfortunately even though people say they don’t like negative ads they are persuaded by them even if it’s subliminally and they vote because of them. It’s hard to run a race without at some point running a comparative ad or so-called negative ad.”

Fallin, who in 1994 became the state’s first woman lieutenant governor, and Askins, who succeeded her, are vying to become the first female governor of Oklahoma in the state’s 103-year history.

Bill Price, a former U.S. attorney who was the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nominee in 1990, told NewsOK that he felt the lack of negative campaigning in the gubernatorial race may be attributed less to both candidates being women and more to their character.

“I think it’s inherent in the candidates,” Price said.

“You don’t have in either of the candidates some kind of personal thing that anybody can attack and so therefore there aren’t any attacks that are truly below-the-belt kinds of things.”

Fallin, a U.S. Congresswoman from Edmond, is leading in the polls but Askins has come from behind to win her last two statewide contests.

According to NewsOK, Askins beat the favorite in the 2006 lieutenant governor general election and she overtook Attorney General Drew Edmondson in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Askins, although trailing throughout the primary, restrained then from running negative ads.

“I have a lot of respect for Jari for taking the high road against Drew and now for taking the high road against Mary,” said Turpen, who supported Edmondson in the primary. “It certainly worked in the primary and I’m hopeful that it will work in the general.”

Fallin, elected to the 5th Congressional District in 2006, is the first female GOP gubernatorial candidate in Oklahoma’s history. Askins is the second woman to win the Democratic nomination for governor after Laura Boyd, who in 1998 lost to then-Gov. Frank Keating.

Price said Fallin continues to run strong in polls and Oklahoma appears headed for another first — Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governor’s office. Republicans took over the House for only the second time in history in 2004 and gained the majority for the first time ever in the Senate in 2008.

Yet things are not quite as rosy as they may at first appear. As several reports note, a series of ads paid for by the Republican Governors Association and other outside national groups have in fact attacked Askins by cranking out negative ads.

There is no evidence that Fallin’s campaign has asked these outside groups to cease and desist.  In the end its possible that some politics as usual is in fact being orchestrated by the ol’ boys club of larger organizations, leaving at least one nominee’s fingerprints off the airwaves, so to speak.  Given the degree to which money from outside a given state is being used to influence elections in that state, such a revelation would not be a surprise.