GOP favorite in US House race once the underdog
TULSA, Okla. (AP) - When tea party-backed political newcomer Jim Bridenstine announced he was running for Oklahoma's 1st Congressional District, he remembers all the chatter that he would surely be trounced by five-term incumbent U.S. Rep. John Sullivan in the Republican primary.
After all, Sullivan had easily cruised through several primaries of his own and went on to crush opponents with 77 percent, 66 percent and 64 percent of the vote in the past three elections.
But this election cycle, as some disenchanted voters search for a fresh face to send to Washington, Bridenstine pulled off a stunning upset in the June primary, capturing 54 percent of the vote by running to the right of the longtime officeholder.
Now, the 37-year-old Navy pilot picked up Sullivan's endorsement for the Nov. 6 election and touts internal poll numbers that show him with a considerable lead on his Democratic opponent - small businessman John Olson. Independent airline pilot Craig Allen is also on the ballot.
Even with the momentum, Bridenstine said he's taking nothing for granted.
"A lot of people didn't think we could win the primary, but we worked especially hard," Bridenstine said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Now, we're in the position where everyone thinks we're going to win, but we're shaking every hand we can and talking to every group we can.
"Our goal is to work as if we're 20 points behind," he said.
After Bridenstine's June surprise win, the mantle of underdog was taken by Olson, who said in a recent interview with AP that he has a decent shot at snagging the seat that represents northeastern Oklahoma and includes the cities of Tulsa and Bartlesville.
The red-leaning district has sent only one Democrat to Congress since the 1940s, and Republicans have held the seat since 1986, but Olson still said it's too soon to pick a likely winner or loser, especially since both candidates are new to most voters.
"I think the chances are really good," said 35-year-old Olson, who is an Army reservist. "It's always going to be an uphill battle, but (Bridenstine's) whole campaign has been based on running against the president and running against health care."
Olson said Bridenstine has made a risky political calculation to run "to the very far edge of how far right you can go," during an election year when many voters want compromise, not partisanship.
"The only thing I run on is common sense," Olson said. "I think Republicans realize that Democrats are not evil monsters and I think Democrats realize that Republicans are not evil monsters.
"I don't care whether it's a Republican idea or a Democrat idea," he said.
Olson said he doesn't want to label himself with what kind of Democratic hybrid he is, but some of his views put him in the moderate category. He is pro-choice but also pro-gun; he supports the concept of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, but is willing to work across the political aisle to trim any provisions in the landmark legislation that don't make sense..
Bridenstine makes no apologies for a campaign strategy of tying Olson to Obama, especially in a state where every county voted for Obama's GOP opponent, Sen. John McCain, in 2008.
"A vote for John Olson is a vote for Barack Obama," he said. "We have very sharp differences, and it comes down to how we perceive government. He wants more government, more spending, more taxes and more regulation. On the other side, there is limited government and low taxes."
Bridenstine won his primary with a strategy that highlighted Sullivan votes that Bridenstine said weren't conservative enough for Oklahoma. As the election drew closer, he brought up Sullivan's battle with alcoholism and his 679 missed votes in the House.
Sullivan had called the attacks political cheap shots. He owned up to his record of missed votes, saying he missed time because of his stay in rehab to treat alcoholism and the death of one of his children.
Allen, the independent candidate, is 54 years old and running a shoestring campaign with less than $500, won't take money from special interests and is asking voters who have grown weary of only having two political parties to cast their ballots for him.
"I am absolutely free to represent the First District," Allen said. "I know no one, I don't have any debt. I'm the guy who goes to Washington to say you can't spend more than you make.
"I still think I'm going to win," he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press