Oklahoma House: Incumbent Sullivan’s Unexpected Loss

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 27, 2012 · 11:57 AM EDT

In one of the most surprising outcomes of this election cycle, Rep. John Sullivan lost in the GOP primary in Oklahoma’s 1st District. Like his colleague in Ohio, Rep. Jean Schmidt, Sullivan didn’t take his primary race seriously enough from the beginning and, by the time he figured out he was in danger, it was too late to change the trajectory of the contest.

Sullivan lost to museum executive director Jim Bridenstine, 53 percent to 47 percent.

There were subtle, late signs that Sullivan might be in trouble, but they were ignored by most. Over the weekend, Sullivan told the Associated Press, "I never had a race like this in all my life...The only mistake I made was I ignored it for too long." By that time, the congressman’s campaign had gone negative against Bridenstine in television ads but it was too little too late and the Navy pilot turned congressional challenger didn’t give Sullivan a lot of avenues to attack.

Bridenstine not only ran as the outsider and as the more conservative candidate, but was bold in attacking Sullivan’s character, since the congressman missed some time in Congress to get treatment for alcoholism. GOP insiders believe that Sullivan’s failure to address the missed votes directly was a significant factor in his defeat.

The congressman outspent Bridenstine $750,000 to $198,000, through the June 6 pre-primary period, and enjoyed $100,000 in outside spending on his behalf. Bridenstine didn’t appear to have support from any of the typical outside groups.

Sullivan becomes the fourth member of Congress to lose in a primary to a non-incumbent challenge. Even with the congressman’s loss, 98 percent of incumbents seeking re-election this year have won their primaries when not facing another member of Congress. (It’s not reasonable to include incumbents who lost Member vs. Member races in a list of incumbent casualties since a Member had to lose that race, even if congressional job approval was at 90 percent.)

In the 2nd District, left open by Democratic Rep. Dan Boren’s retirement, Democrats’ ability to hold the seat got slightly more difficult after their preferred candidate, former District Attorney Rob Wallace, was forced into a runoff against seed company owner/Tulsa County Farm Bureau President Wayne Herriman. Wallace bested Herriman by about four points yesterday but failed to get over the 50 percent threshold.

Republicans still have to choose their nominee, but either Democrat will have a difficult time in the general election in a district that John McCain won with 66 percent of the vote in 2008.

Plumbing contractor Markwayne Mullin finished first with 43 percent, but faces state Rep. George Faught (23 percent) in the August 28 runoff. Four other candidates split the remainder of the vote.

Even if Wallace makes it through the runoff, he will have very little time to regroup and raise enough money for the general election to carve out his own independent image from the national party and the President. Republicans are favored to take over the seat.