Last of the small spenders?

Politics | Tom Coburn's commitment to old-fashioned fiscal conservatism is a hard sell against his pork-barrel challenger-even in conservative Oklahoma

Issue: "Terrorism: Unmasked men," Oct. 16, 2004

OKLAHOMA CITY -- While skipping down stairs in Oklahoma's state capitol building, 56-year-old Tom Coburn, an obstetrician by profession, explains his reasons for reentering politics by quoting nearly perfectly from an 18th-century Scottish historian: "If you read what's been attributed to Alexander Tytler, the world's republics always die the same. When the voters figure out they can vote for the people who can give them spoils from the public treasury, they go over to loose fiscal policy."

Tytler, also known as Lord Woodhouselee, may or may not have actually said it. But the sentiment was wildly popular with Oklahomans who sent Dr. Coburn to the U.S. House of Representatives three times during the 1990s. When the Okie from Muskogee talks about fiscal responsibility, he's one part country doctor and one part apocalyptic prophet. But he's nothing like a politician. "We owe $7 trillion," he says before jumping in a blue Chevy Yukon to drive across Oklahoma for a Tuesday afternoon fundraiser. "[Spending] is the way every career politician gets himself reelected. And it's the surest way I know to end this wonderful experiment in democracy."

He's popular. He's a straight shooter in a state that prides itself on plainspoken wisdom. He's a pro-life obstetrician in a socially conservative state. He's running under the Republican flag in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988 and hasn't given its electoral votes to a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. So why can't Tom Coburn, in the heart of George W. Bush country, pull ahead in one of the nation's most important Senate races?

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Tom Coburn entered Washington, D.C., in 1994 on the wave of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution that gave the GOP control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. Like others in his freshman congressional class, Dr. Coburn promised to limit his congressional service to six years. Unlike most of his colleagues, the Muskogee, Okla., representative kept his word, quietly returning home in 2001 to continue delivering babies. But in the interim, while Dr. Coburn's actions in the House earned him admiration from his fellow 1994 classmates, his hard-line approach on spending drew the ire of Republican leaders.

In 1996 he proposed 200 amendments to a Labor Appropriations bill he considered to be pork-filled. In 1997, he participated in a coup against Mr. Gingrich, the House Speaker. "[He] is a man of rare high principle who is less interested in being a party politician and more interested in keeping his promises to reduce spending," Illinois Republican Henry Hyde told The Hill newspaper in 1999, just days after Dr. Coburn held up for two days an Agriculture Appropriations bill with 115 amendments.

Once Dr. Coburn finally relented on his awkward House filibuster, the Oklahoman earned a direct tongue lashing from Republican leader Dick Armey during a GOP conference meeting. "Sometimes he's a burr under the saddle of the party because compromise is an essential element, and Tom doesn't compromise very easily," Mr. Hyde said.

So it's no surprise that Oklahoma party leaders weren't exactly thrilled when Dr. Coburn entered the Senate primary race last March. The party establishment, including Sen. James Inhofe and retiring Sen. Don Nickles, supported former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys. Dr. Coburn bumped off the former mayor and two other candidates without a runoff in the late July election.

But since entering the general election season, and lacking the enthusiatic support of party faithful, the Republican has been out-maneuvered by Democratic opponent Brad Carson. Mr. Carson has made headway asserting that while in Congress, Dr. Coburn fought hard against federal spending in his Muskogee-area district. Mr. Carson, who took Dr. Coburn's seat in 2001, said he's brought home the bacon, a point with which Club for Growth executive director David Keating agrees: "He has just an astonishing record of supporting new spending programs." But there's more, Mr. Keating says. While in Congress, Mr. Carson has made his career by "voting against tax relief and siding with the trial lawyers. He has this moderate image, but it's not on anything that would create real economic growth." Dr. Coburn hasn't conveyed that point to conservative Oklahoma voters, and polls gave Mr. Carson a definitive lead heading into October before Dr. Coburn pulled even. This, in a state that President Bush won by more than 20 points in 2004.

Dr. Coburn also has money problems. By July 7, Mr. Carson had raised nearly $3 million for his race, including $759,291 from outside the Sooner state. Dr. Coburn's finances seemed bleaker when he reported to the Federal Elections Commission a day later: The obstetrician had raised just over $859,000. (Unlike the party establishment, the Club for Growth, a 527 political action committee supporting fiscally conservative candidates, jumped behind Dr. Coburn early, even producing a $155,000 ad campaign supporting the Republican.)


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