The big debate occurred last night. No, not that "town hall" debate from Memphis we sat through between two guys hammering talking points on a round stage with extraordinarily crimson carpet. I'm talking about the one and only debate between two-and-a-third term U.S. senator and biblical literalist Jim Inhofe and one-term state senator and former John Mayer impersonator Andrew Rice. This debate sounded like any debate in the country between a Republican and a Democrat right now, as the Democrat Rice hounded the Republican Inhofe about the current state of the economy and attempted to tie him to the failed policies of George W. Bush. In most states, this would mean that Andrew Rice would have won the debate. In Oklahoma, it just showed how out-of-touch Andrew Rice is with Oklahoma voters.
Jim Inhofe wore his voting record on his sleeve. While John McCain was landing punches with his proclamation that Barack Obama was the most liberal senator in the U.S. Senate, Jim Inhofe himself proudly found several watchdog groups that called him the most conservative senator in the U.S. Senate. He's proud of it. His support for Israel's occupation of the West Bank comes from a chapter in Genesis. He wants to openly discriminate against gay people. He voted against banning torture. He voted to make it harder to repay student loans. As the second largest recipient of oil company campaign contributions, he wants to make sure oil companies can drill directly into the skulls of polar bears. He compares environmentalism to Naziism. I only made one of those things up. After proclaiming himself the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate, he stated that there wasn't a race in the country with more idealogically opposed candidates. This would probably be true no matter who the opponent was. And yet, Inhofe leads in the polls by 15-20 points. Oklahomans adore conservatives.
At one point during the debate, Andrew Rice successfully compared Jim Inhofe to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Since I only read about the debate in the paper, I have no way of knowing whether Inhofe's response was "Thanks for the compliment!", "Oh, you're too kind!" or "No way! My family doesn't have a single gay or lesbian member unlike Dick Cheney's family!" Bush may be unpopular everywhere else in the country, but I guarantee you that George W. Bush would win a reelection in this state were it to be constitutionally possible.
Andrew Rice also made a reverse-voter-pledge by urging those whose lives are better off than they were 8 years ago to go ahead and vote for Jim Inhofe. This would be a small voter pool indeed in most other states, but probably not in Oklahoma. Over the past 8 years, our oil-based economy has boomed due to the skyrocketing price of oil. House prices still haven't fallen. Our state budget has been filled with surplusses for years. Unemployment is roughly the same as it was in 2000, and (through August) unemployment has been down from last year. We had a GM plant close in that time period, but who hasn't? We have mostly been able to offset those manufacturing jobs with higher paying jobs. Oklahoma has received a boon from the base realignment commission, which called for increases in the levels of soldiers at our Oklahoma military bases. Our colleges and universities have seen increased enrollment even with tuition rising sharply over the past 8 years. Our state even landed its first professional sports team. All in all, if everyone really thought about it, I'm almost positive a majority of voters in Oklahoma truly are better off than they were 8 years ago. But even those whose lives are not better off probably are going to vote for Inhofe anyways.
Let's face it. No matter what Andrew Rice said, he would never have had a chance against the entrenched and well-funded Jim Inhofe. But he spoke at the debate as if he was talking to favorable audience members in his poor urban Oklahoma City senate district. He should have been more like Brad Henry, our two-term Democratic governor who is more of a moderate on most issues and points out his openness to Republican issues like tax cuts and abortions in debates (even if he doesn't follow through on passing them) and who enjoys substantial rural support.