Democratic Gov. Brad Henry’s victory over Republican Rep. Ernest Istook was the biggest landslide in an Oklahoma governor’s race in almost half a century.
Henry, a little-known state senator when he upset a football hero in 2002, rolled up 615,973 votes in unofficial returns to 310,333 for Istook, the seven-term representative from the 5th Congressional District.
He garnered 66.5 percent of the vote, topping Gov. George Nigh’s feat of 63 percent in 1982, when Democrats had a much larger majority of registered voters than they have now. Nigh crushed Republican Tom Daxon, now state Republican chairman.
Unlike Nigh, Henry did not win all 77 counties. Istook won in Beaver, Cimarron and Texas counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle.
A similarity to the Nigh and Henry re-election bids is they came after a period of rising state revenue because of high oil and natural gas revenues, which allowed for tax cuts and record spending on education and other popular programs.
Henry rode into the election season this year with bragging rights to a record $627 million tax cut.
His vote percentage was the highest since 1958, when Democrat J. Howard Edmondson’s famous “Prairie Fire” campaign swept the reformer from Muskogee into office with 74 percent of the vote over Republican Phil Ferguson.
In 2002, Henry edged NFL Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent by less than 7,000 votes in a three-way race that included a well-financed independent.
Henry said he was overwhelmed by the size of his win this time around over the veteran 56-year-old Istook.
“I think the people appreciate the direction our administration has led the state and believe Oklahoma is truly on the move to greatness,” he said.
“I think the results show that the attacks didn’t register with the public. Everywhere Kim and I have been, people will compliment us on our positive, upbeat, issue-oriented campaigning.”
He congratulated Istook on his service to the state and said it was time for Oklahomans to rally together as they head into the Centennial celebration in 2007.
“If we work together as Oklahomans, as neighbors, we will build the greatest state in the greatest nation in the world and that’s what I hope to do over the next four years.”
Istook, who gave up a safe congressional post to challenge the popular Henry, said he had no regrets about making the race.
“I have been unhappy about the trends in Congress for some time. We (Republicans) were not adhering to the fundamental principles of limited government, and I think we see many Republicans paying the price for that,” he said.
He said he had not made any future plans and could not say whether he would seek a job in Washington.
“I’ve been focused on this race, not what I will do in the future. I know there will be opportunities and I’ll start looking at those tomorrow.”
Henry, 43, ran for a second term as a consensus-builder who worked well with Republicans, contrasting his approach with “the Washington way of political sniping and never getting anything done.”
Istook, a family values conservative known for pressing prayer in school, tried frantically to make up ground by attacking Henry on such issues as crime and illegal immigration in debates and television advertising.
But his TV effort was limited, while Henry had a steady stream of slick commercials, carrying his own family values message with spots featuring his three daughters and first lady Kim Henry, a former teacher, talking about the incumbent’s commitment to education.
Istook said his campaign was hurt because he had to spend $1 million of the estimated $1.7 million he raised to win the primary. “In the general election, we were outspent in paid advertising at least six to one. So the governor was able to present himself in the favorable light that he desired.”
Looking to his next four years, Henry said he would continue to stress building a better education system, improving health care and investing in research to create high-paying jobs.
Henry said the election showed that “it’s OK to be a Democrat. Democrats really care. Democrats can be Christians.”
Those who gathered at a watch party where Henry spoke had different reasons for voting for the incumbent.
“He’s right down the middle, and that’s what I am, a centrist Democrat,” said Don Harris, 69, of Oklahoma City.
James Tannehill of McAlester said he liked Henry’s pro-firearms position and Marily Wadley, also from McAlester, praised Henry for supporting college aid programs that helped put her son through the University of Oklahoma.