Democrat sees break, joins U.S. Senate race, to challenge Inhofe

By Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Andrew Rice was only six months into his new life as a Democratic state senator when people started urging him into the ring with Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe.
It was this past summer, and no viable candidates had emerged to challenge Inhofe, of Tulsa, who has been in the Senate since 1994.
Rice, of Oklahoma City, traveled around the state for a few weeks and decided to go for it. He filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in early August and, by the end of September, had raised more than $300,000.
It is an ambitious quest for Rice, a 34-year-old political neophyte taking on the 73-year-old Inhofe, who has spent most of the last 40 years in politics.
"I feel like this is an anti-incumbent year,” Rice said in a recent interview.
Rice will be running against an incumbent with a long record, who has made some enemies in Washington, particularly in the environmental community.
The League of Conservation Voters, a national environmental group that has targeted its "Dirty Dozen” list of candidates in previous elections, has its sights on Inhofe.
But the group targeted Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, in the last election cycle and didn't follow through with any money or effort since Boren didn't appear vulnerable.
Whether that group and others, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, ultimately decide Inhofe is vulnerable — and Rice viable — remains to be seen.
"State Senator Rice in Oklahoma is a good candidate,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the chairman of the senatorial campaign committee, told reporters recently. "He's going to surprise people.”
What would be a surprise in Oklahoma is a Democrat getting more than 41 percent of the vote in a U.S. Senate race.
That hasn't happened since 1990, when former Sen. David Boren won his final race. Inhofe was elected in 1994 to fill Boren's last two years; his Democratic opponent, former U.S. Rep. Dave McCurdy got 40 percent of the vote. Neither of Inhofe's last two opponents have topped that. Nor did either of the Democratic opponents of former Sen. Don Nickles, in 1992 and 1998.
In 2004, former U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, a Democrat, got 41 percent of the vote — in the race to replace Nickles — against Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee.
If he is ultimately the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat, Rice, like Carson, will be on the ticket in a presidential year, in a red state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
But Rice sees an opening for a new face, at a time when, he said, voters are tired of partisan gridlock in Washington and nasty campaigns.
"They want competent and responsible government,” he said. "I think sometimes (political) races are portrayed as people are looking for the ideal candidate.
"People are pretty down-to-earth and realistic about what they expect. People want you to pay attention to what they're saying. They want immigration reform. They want affordable health care.”
Religion and politicsBy now, Rice's connection to the 9/11 attacks is fairly well known, at least in Oklahoma City, where he won a state Senate seat vacated by a term-limited Democrat: Rice's brother, David, was killed in the World Trade Center; he was 31.
At the time, Rice was working as a documentary filmmaker and living in New York. Soon after, he moved to Texas and worked for a group called the Texas Freedom Network, which, he said, organized religious leaders to give an alternative take on issues from those he referred to as "religious extremists.”
He later moved back to Oklahoma and started his own group, called the Progressive Alliance Foundation, which aimed at encouraging discussion about political issues.
He considers abortion and gay marriage to be religious issues, he said, and "government doesn't have a role there.”
Rice favors abortion rights and civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
He said he tends toward Libertarian views of limited government on many issues and that Oklahomans also have been historically suspicious of government intrusion. He said he didn't get into public service to legislate on personal decisions.
Rice's views didn't prevent him from winning a Senate district that is among the most Democratic in the state and supported Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for president in 2004.
But running statewide, against an incumbent who declared in 1994 that "God, gays and guns” would decide his race, may be a different story.
"I'm fully supportive of gun rights,” Rice said when asked about Inhofe's oft-repeated comment.
Then he added, of Inhofe, "I feel like he's still stuck campaignwise in 1994.”
Opposition to Iraq war Rice opposes the war, saying that al-Qaida and religious extremism was the real threat to national security. Inhofe is one of the most outspoken supporters of the war.
"Al-Qaida are the ones we need to get smart about,” he said. "We've got to find a way to defuse their ability to recruit people and cut off their funding. We can't be at the forefront of changing hearts and minds (among Muslims). We have to rely on moderate Muslims to do it. You don't want to create a new generation of radicalized Muslims. We've got to be tough and smart.”
He said it isn't feasible or responsible to withdraw all of the troops out of Iraq immediately. He favors a phased withdrawal.
"I don't think it's realistic to expect the majority of the troops to be out in a year,” he said.
Rice voted for the state immigration bill, parts of which recently went into effect in Oklahoma. And his views on the subject have no obvious differences from those of Inhofe. Rice said the most urgent need is border security. Only when that's accomplished, he said, lawmakers should tackle the issue of what to do with people who are here illegally.
"I'm not an advocate of blanket amnesty,” he said.
Critical of global warmingThere are, however, plenty of issues on which Inhofe and Rice disagree, including global warming. Rice has been critical of Inhofe's efforts to discredit scientific studies about global warming and to block legislation aimed at curbing emissions of greenhouse gases.
Inhofe, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, is the most outspoken skeptic of global warming and has called it a hoax.
Should outside groups decide to get involved in the Oklahoma Senate race next year, Inhofe's views on global warming will no doubt be a major focus.
Rice said he can't control what outside groups do or say, but that he would set some limits on his own campaign rhetoric.
"Demonizing, smearing — (Voters) really have no appetite for it,” he said. "It doesn't mean I'm not going to be critical. But it's going to be done with decency, not character assassinations. And it's going to be accurate.
"Oklahomans like mavericks, but they don't like rudeness.”

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