By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY — Three years after a Republican steamroll flipped all of Oklahoma's statewide elected offices to the GOP, few strong Democratic candidates are emerging to take on Gov. Mary Fallin and other high-ranking Republican incumbents.
A key deadline to file campaign finance reports ahead of the 2014 elections is Wednesday, and there hasn't been much movement by higher-profile Democrats. Most of those on the party's already thin political bench in Oklahoma appear to be taking a pass next year.
"If you're fishing for a name for a gubernatorial candidate, we're still fishing, too," Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairman Wallace Collins said bluntly.
An exception for Democrats is the state superintendent post held by Republican Janet Barresi, whose first term got off to a rocky start with highly publicized clashes with the state school board and resistance from local superintendents over some GOP education initiatives.
Collins said at least four Democratic challengers have emerged in that race. Barresi also is expected to face a primary challenge from Tulsa Republican Joy Hofmeister, a former state school board member.
Oklahoma City restaurateur Cathy Cummings, a Democrat, has announced plans to run against Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, but Collins acknowledges that viable candidates for some of the other statewide offices are few.
Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping to seize on the continuing momentum they've enjoyed for the past several election cycles by smashing the Democrats' last stronghold: local seats such as county commissioners, sheriffs and other posts.
"Not just county seats, but also municipal seats, school board seats," said new Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Dave Weston. "The government that means the most to you is the government that's closest to you, and we want to encourage conservative Republicans to get involved in their local government and make a positive difference."
"And if there's a conservative Democrat that's out there that wants to come on board, we welcome them with open arms," he said.
The obvious goal, he noted, was to maintain GOP control of the Legislature and every statewide and federal elected office in Oklahoma. But he said the GOP also hopes to overtake Democrats in party registration, a gap Republicans have been closing over the past decade.
Democrats total 45 percent of the voter registration, compared with 42 percent for Republicans. The rest are independents.
"It's going to happen within the next decade, regardless," Weston said. "But we think we can speed that up."
Democrats could have some success in 2014 in state House and Senate races if good candidates are willing to work hard, said Andrew Rice, the former Democratic leader of the Oklahoma Senate who unsuccessfully ran against U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe in 2008. But Rice said the chances of a Democrat winning a statewide election in Oklahoma in 2014, while President Barack Obama remains in office, are not good.
"I think some of your more viable candidates are waiting for better opportunities later on, when the White House isn't occupied by a president who is culturally and politically unpopular in Oklahoma," Rice said. "That hurts."
Rice said he believes the political pendulum eventually will return to the Democrats' favor as urban and suburban districts become more moderate and more Hispanics become politically active, but he acknowledges that Republicans appear to still have the momentum.