OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -Democrats and Republicans in the Oklahoma Legislature tune up for the fall general election on July 29 with more than 40 primary contests that will have little effect on the political makeup of next year's Legislature.
The two parties are fighting for legislative gains, but voters will ultimately make those decisions when they go to the polls Nov. 4. A runoff election is set for Aug. 26.
Twenty-two of the 41 House and Senate primary races pit Republicans against each other. In a departure from past elections, 18 GOP primaries are in the House.
“Traditionally, House Republicans do not have a lot of primaries,” said state Election Board Secretary Mike Clingman.
But Republican leaders say the GOP's rise to prominence in the Legislature since 2004 is changing all that.
For the second general election in a row, Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, is predicting a GOP takeover in the 48-member Senate, which is tied with 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans.
In the House, where Republicans held a 57-44 advantage last session, leaders typically disagree over what party will make gains this fall.
One of the key Senate races in November will match the winner of a primary in Tulsa between Republicans Dan Newberry and Jan Megee against Democratic incumbent Nancy Riley.
The GOP is gunning for Riley after her switch from Republican to Democrat two years ago prevented Republicans from grabbing a majority in the Senate.
Another key Senate contest in November will be in Stillwater between the winner of the Democratic primary between Bob Murphy and Gregory Wilson and Republican Jim Halligan, former president of Oklahoma State University.
Murphy, a former judge, is expected to advance to the general election, while Halligan is unopposed on the GOP side.
The post opened up because Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, is term-limited.
Democratic leader Danny Morgan, D-Prague, says he is convinced Democrats will pick up seats in the 101-member House, while Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, holds out hope the GOP will pad their majority by a couple of members.
Thirty-four House incumbents and 10 Senate incumbents are assured of another term because they did not draw opponents during the June filing period.
Incumbents generally are heavy favorites in the few primary contests they are involved in, leaders say.
Although six Democrats were term-limited in the House, compared to only one Republican, Morgan thinks his party can take advantage of the decision of GOP incumbents to leave the Legislature.
Some departing Republicans are in districts once held by Democrats. They include former Speaker Lance Cargill of Harrah and Reps. Gregg Piatt of Ardmore and Susan Winchester of Chickasha.
“It's pretty obvious that the open seats are going to be key to what the makeup of the Legislature is next year,” Morgan said.
Morgan said he was surprised by the high number of Republican House primaries, but did not know the reason for them.
Benge, however, had a ready answer: “I would attribute it to our growing majority and our growing presence as a governing party in the state,” he said. He said House Republicans have had policy successes since 2004 and “I think that energizes people. They want to be a part of that.”
The winner of one Senate seat in Tulsa County and one in Oklahoma County will be determined in the primary because no Democrats filed for the posts in strong Republican areas.
Five Republicans are vying for the position now held by Sen. James Williamson in Tulsa, while five GOP hopefuls are battling for the position being vacated in Oklahoma County by Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson. Williamson and Wilcoxson are term-limited.
In southeast Oklahoma, state Rep. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant, is favored over Steve Young in the Democratic primary to replace term-limited Sen. Jeff Rabon, D-Hugo. Republican Patrick K. Miller will be the underdog in November in the Democratic district.
In Tulsa, the District 75 House post will be determined in the primary in a three-way GOP contest to succeed Republican Rep. Dennis Adkins, who did not seek re-election. So will the District 74 position, where incumbent Republican David Derby faces two primary challengers, and the District 80 post, where two Republicans are running to succeed GOP Rep. Ron Peterson, who chose not to run again.
Overall, more Democrats will be competitive in House races in November than in recent elections, says Ivan Holmes, state Democratic chairman.
Also, Holmes said 21 Democrats are unopposed, compared to 10 Republicans. “It is the first time in a long time where they have to defend more seats than we do,” he said.
Among the well-known incumbents facing primary challenges are Benge and Rep. Randy Terrill of Moore. Terrill, who also has Democratic opposition in November, is the author of the tough anti-illegal immigration bill that has been duplicated in other states.
Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, is facing a primary challenge from Jon Echols, who has said he is being advised by Cargill. Reynolds was a critic of Cargill, who resigned as speaker after news stories about late tax payments.
One of the hottest primary races is in Cleveland County, where four Republicans are fighting for the nomination in House District 45 and the right to oppose Democratic incumbent Wallace Collins. The GOP hopefuls include a former Norman mayor, a city councilman, a businessman and an economics student. Collins district has often featured close elections.