Politics & Policy

Our Okie From Muskogee

Conservative Tom Coburn runs for the Senate.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

This article appears in the August 9, 2004, issue of National Review.

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.

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John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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