WASHINGTON -- Dr. Tom Coburn, the plainspoken obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., was back in Washington briefly last week. Republican senators greeted him with mixed emotions. He is their best hope for keeping an Oklahoma seat Republican in the closely divided Senate. The bad news is, he would be as prickly in the Senate as he was during his six years in the House (1995-2000).
Coburn's problem is that he takes seriously the professed Republican agenda: limited government, entitlement reform and anti-abortion advocacy. He was a rare sincere GOP supporter of term limits, leaving the House after three terms as he promised to do. The result is scant support for Coburn from the Republican establishment, in the nation's capital as well as Oklahoma. If elected to the Senate, he will do it largely on his own.
That situation suggests the current realignment cycle in American politics is nearing an end after 36 years, with the Republican Party displaying symptoms of a nervous breakdown. The party's leadership, from President Bush on down, went out of its way to push the undependable Republican Sen. Arlen Specter to victory against a staunch conservative in the Pennsylvania primary because he was considered a stronger general election candidate. In contrast, dependably conservative Coburn gets no establishment support in the contested Oklahoma primary though he is the best bet in November.
The Oklahoma Senate seat was safely Republican until Sen. Don Nickles surprised everybody by not seeking re-election. Nickles, Sen. James Inhofe and the state party apparatus got behind former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, popular with the insiders but not much of a candidate. Conservative Republican Rep. Ernest Istook wanted to run but was squeezed out. The only problem was that Humphreys looked like a loser against Rep. Brad Carson, a clever Democrat who votes with the liberals in the House two-thirds of the time but sounds like a moderate in Oklahoma.
With a Democratic victory in sight, Coburn on March 1 ended his retirement from politics. Without financing or endorsements, he had a 12-point lead over Humphreys and was running even with Carson, according to the Tulsa World's poll (taken March 26-April 5). Instead of generating support, those numbers only intensified the establishment's determination to keep Coburn in Muskogee. Instead of raising money for him, the Republican lobbyist community whispered that Coburn was not solidly for Bush.